When the News View’s and How To’s blog interviewed Simon Holland about his niche specialty graphics business, it was clear that he had much in common with other successful Roland DG users. His story follows the route of an intrepid entrepreneur who started a side hustle on a small scale to make some extra cash, found that it was something that could be turned into a real business, and then followed that path to see where it led. Like many other business startups, the pathway was one of trial and error, of figuring out the market, seeing what works best for him, and arriving at a destination where his business started to work.
Sassy Squirrel Ink happened quite by accident. It all began one Christmas when Simon Holland bought his wife and business partner, Kelly Holland, a customized piece of slate that he personalized on an online storefront. When his wife opened it, it was a gift item that was surprisingly sophisticated and significant. It got Simon thinking about how it was made and how he could he make it. So, after doing some research and talking to relatives with Etsy businesses who were making far more money than he expected, he decided to try his own hand at making personalized slate gifts to sell on Etsy.
An example of the slate tile products that Sassy Squirrel Ink produces— personalized with house numbers, names, messages, and images.
Going to Market for the First Time
Simon is a keen photographer and initially put “photos-on-slate" on Etsy but then realized quickly that it was not something that people were searching for. He explained how he was able to pivot his business to hit upon a more desirable personalized product, saying, “Coming from England, I was used to seeing people use slate for house signs, so I thought maybe I can promote that and get people to the site through those items”. He continued, “So I changed focus and created a dozen designs on Etsy and they started selling. I just went where the market was and added more home sign designs. We now have 150 plus designs for the front-of-houses and home décor. I’ve thought about expanding and doing other things, but I prefer to stay in this niche and really work it.”
“So, I changed focus and created a dozen designs on Etsy and they started selling. I just went where the market was and added more home sign designs. We now have 150 plus designs for the front-of-houses and home décor. I’ve thought about expanding and doing other things, but I prefer to stay in this niche and really work it.”
Simon is a musician who started a personalization business. The story of where he’s at today has been one of “changing focus”— something that he shares with many other successful businesses where it starts out as something that was supposed to be short term and grows into something much bigger and more important. He said, “When I started, I didn’t plan on running a business, it was more like a hobby that I had that was meant to bring in a few hundred bucks a month, so I didn’t have to worry about the money and for me that was definitely the way to go. I could do the trial and error and not cry about the loss of income, and as it built, everything I earned was a bonus. Then gradually it’s taken over so that I’m now an entrepreneur with a business first and being a musician is more of a hobby.”
Sassy Squirrel Ink pivoted their business to sell house signs with personalized numbers on— they went where the market was.
The Importance of Finding Your Place in the Market
When talking to Simon about niche printing and personalization, he stresses how important it is, with the cost of advertising, to be more focused and to find personalization gaps in the market. He said, “The problem is not only selling something but promoting something. If I were to do house signs but also bumper stickers and t-shirts, I’d have to promote each one separately and compete with other companies in a dozen different markets. With our market it’s just “house signs” so we maybe have fifty keywords that we use, we are spending less on advertising, competing with fewer companies, and ours is unique— no one personalizes in the same way we do.” Even within his own business, Simon is almost entirely focused on personalized slate home décor signs. Although he does have a few generic sign items, all his profit is from personalization. He explained, “It’s 99% completely customized. Everything is made-to-order and nothing is in stock. The orders come in daily from Amazon, Etsy, Wayfair, Comfort House and our own website and we send them out the next day or in Amazon’s case that same day. The generic type of door signs you can get in Walmart, we can’t price-compete with, so we don’t try to.”
"The problem is not only selling something but promoting something. If I were to do house signs but also bumper stickers and t-shirts, I’d have to promote each one separately and compete with other companies in a dozen different markets. With our market it’s just “house signs” so we maybe have fifty keywords that we use, we are spending less on advertising, competing with fewer companies, and ours is unique— no one personalizes in the same way we do.”
Talking about personalization, production, and delivery, Simon described how personalization can sometimes be a frantic business and that there is a constant need to fulfill orders, saying, “Anything that comes in on Prime before two PM has to go out that same day, so if you suddenly get a rush of orders, you still have to get those orders out that day, and if you go on vacation, you have to know that someone is still doing the job and getting those orders out. We have a couple of employees who might find situations difficult if there’s a major problem, whereas, I’ve had five years’ experience of this job and can troubleshoot every issue. So, it can be stressful for everyone involved in the business and there are problems that you wouldn’t have if you were producing a generic product.”
Sassy Squirrel Ink makes a boutique house sign product— 99% of their output is completely customized and made exactly to order with nothing is in stock.
We asked Simon about some of the pitfalls of online selling. He was very candid about the hurdles that businesses face when trying to navigate online selling. It’s something that takes time and experience. Sassy Squirrel Ink has worked hard at researching and implementing online strategies but has also chosen to invest in companies who specialize in keyword marketing on sites like Amazon— some were good and improved their pay-per-click results and some made little difference to their sales. Simon explained that online success is not something that’s easy or that happens overnight. He described the challenges of his initial attempts at online selling, saying, “We slowly learned as we went along. Selling on sites like Amazon is complicated. You can’t start advertising on there as soon as you get on. You must become a qualified seller first, so we had to start by putting up our products on Amazon with no advertising and praying that someone saw them for the first six months.” He continued, “For six-months we were only selling one-or-two a day, then one week we’re selling half-a-dozen a day and I’m thinking “that’s great” then the next minute I’m getting a notification telling us that our advertising budget has run out and I’m thinking, “we’ve been advertising all this time? I didn’t realize?” Advertising can be a minefield.”
“For six-months we were only selling one-or-two a day, then one week we’re selling half-a-dozen a day and I’m thinking “that’s great” then the next minute I’m getting a notification telling us that our advertising budget has run out and I’m thinking, “we’ve been advertising all this time? I didn’t realize?” Advertising can be a minefield.”
Online Selling and the Benefits of Understanding Your Audience
Through experience in the personalization market, Simon has built top-rated Etsy and Amazon shopfronts and he instinctively understands all the benefits and drawbacks of the different platforms that Sassy Squirrel Ink sells on. While it takes time to build online sales success, for companies starting out, Simon mentioned that Etsy is probably a pretty good place to start because of the ease of selling on the platform. However, this also makes it a bit of a double-edged-sword because it is so predetermined. As Simon explained, “You have keywords that you put into your listing and Etsy does the rest, but you have no control. From that perspective it’s bad because you can’t choose where you’re advertising or how much you’re spending. However, for a small company starting out or someone coming in from day-one with a product to sell, it’s probably better because Etsy does all the heavy work for you.”
Sassy Squirrel inks products are all sold online and all supported by specific keywords to help customers navigate to the sign they want.
Continuing our discussion about keyword marketing, Simon described some of the ways new product personalization businesses can affordably optimize their keyword marketing. He explained, “There are website, mostly free, that help you with your Etsy and other online keywords, but I spent a lot of time looking at my competitors keywords and analyzing the market in that way. Experimentation is also important and mixing in and out new keywords to see which make a difference.” Simon also has some great advice for people searching for product keywords, saying, “We sell house signs but “house signs” is too generic and too many of the big companies are using it and getting all the major hits on that term, so if we use it, we’re just throwing our money away. As a smaller company we need to be far more specific with our keywords to knock the competition out.”
“We sell house signs but “house signs” is too generic and too many of the big companies are using it and getting all the major hits on that term, so if we use it, we’re just throwing our money away. As a smaller company we need to be far more specific with our keywords to knock the competition out.”
In addition to understanding the online environment you’re selling in, Simon also explained to us how important it is for a business like his to know your audience, saying, “You’ve got to know your customer and understand where you’re aiming your product at… Amazon and Etsy have metrics on who’s buying your products, so definitely look at those demographics and see who’s buying and see which states they’re buying from. You can sell to specific state so if they’re selling more in the Southern States, you can aim your products there. But it’s an ever-changing environment so what you did six-months ago might not be the same now.” He continued, “With a new product that’s different from what people have done before, you’re going to have to discover who the market is, pivot your product, and redesign it as you go along because the answers aren’t there, because no one’s discovered them yet.”
An example of a product that’s been targeted to a specific audience— Sassy Squirrel Ink knows their customer and understands where to aim their product.
Finding the Right Equipment
Simon has found the ideal printer for slate personalization in the VersaUV LEF-300 flatbed printer. However, finding the right printer didn’t happen for Simon immediately. When he first started printing onto slate, he was using dye-sublimation that was great for indoor products but didn’t work so well for outdoor plaques. When he tested out slate printing on VersaUV technology, he knew that it was the right solution for his business. As he explained, “I loved the quality. I printed on it and left it out in the sun for a year and a half and it still looks as good after a year and a half as it did when we printed it.” As Simon explained, the great thing about VersaUV technology is how flexible it is. With a few alterations in the personalization process, it can be easily adapted to fit specific productions. Simon has been working on his own process for making personalized slate house signs with his VersaUV LEF flatbed printer some years now and has been able to perfect his process. He said, “We buy the slate in bulk, wash it, drill it, and often add a very sticky base white to the slate— then we print on the LEF printer and twenty-four hours after printing, it's very hard to scratch off and we’ve never had a complaint.”
“We buy the slate in bulk, wash it, drill it, and often add a very sticky base white to the slate— then we print on the LEF printer and twenty-four hours after printing, it's very hard to scratch off and we’ve never had a complaint.”
An example of one of Sassy Squirrel Inks products that they print with a VersaUV LEF-300 flatbed printer— adding sticky base white to the plate before personalizing with the LEF.
Sometimes You Need to “Take a Right Angle”
When asked about starting and growing a personalization business, Simon had some great advice for other businesses. Sassy Squirrel Inks successes have come from a combination of hard work, taking chances, making smart choices, and having the right mindset. As he explained, “Everyone must go through trial, error, and change. We started with no budget and 10,000 dollars that got us our first machine, stock, website, everything. So, I didn’t have people to employ to market, strategize, publicize, or write copy for the ad, any of that… If you have the right people who have the experience, you can certainly grow a lot quicker from the start.” Comparing his own business growth, he said, “Our business growth has been organic, and we’ve grown each year. We’ve just kind of let it grow and when we’ve been able to afford more advertising, we’ve put more money into it and when sales were down, we take a little bit out again.” Simon concluded, “When you first start out, you might have to accept that you’re not going to get a guaranteed lump sum every month. There is a risk, and some people don’t have that mindset. More importantly, you must be adaptable. Sometimes you need to take a right angle because that wasn’t the right path and you need to be open to new ideas, to different ways of doing things, and to criticism from customers.”
“Our business growth has been organic, and we’ve grown each year. We’ve just kind of let it grow and when we’ve been able to afford more advertising, we’ve put more money into it and when sales were down, we take a little bit out again.”
- It was very revealing to talk to Simon and to hear about the challenges and rewards of starting an online personalization business. Sassy Squirrel Ink is a company that is spread across many different internet platforms to make maximum use of the online marketplace. They are the perfect example to any business just starting out about how you can create a product that exactly fits a purpose, a market, and an audience. If you’re starting your own online business with VersaUV flatbed printers or other Roland DG desktop devices, visit our business building webpage to find out more about finding your own place in the market and getting your start in personalization.