Tell us about your shop and the idea behind it.
Tracey Capone Photography is where I sell my original photography, both in print form and on wood photo blocks and panels which I stain, mount and finish in my Chicago studio. My subject matter is rather eclectic, and my style leans towards retro-inspired, as I love to pay homage to the cameras of days past.
I started my shop with the idea that I wanted to offer original, independent art at affordable prices. I think art should be available to many, not just those with a lot of disposable income. When I rented my first apartment years ago, I decorated with what I could afford — mass produced posters from big box stores. While it is a fantastic way to decorate a home on a budget, I wish Etsy had been an option at the time. I am constantly in awe of the amazing, unique and affordable work you can find here.
Tell us about your previous working situation and how you discovered Etsy.
I started working for one of the “big four” insurance companies straight out of college and was with them for 15 years. After several years with the company, I was making a very good income with benefits but I was quite unhappy. Nothing about my project manager job tapped in to my creative energy (outside of occasionally having to come up with creative ways to break bad news to clients). Thinking a change of scenery might help, I said goodbye to Chicago and moved south with the same company.
I quickly found myself homesick and, at the same time, the work situation got worse. That was when my best friend, who loves vintage shopping, told me about Etsy. I checked it out, fell in love, and opened my shop that week. The sense of satisfaction I gained from running a part-time creative business helped ease some of my dissatisfaction. I knew at some point, in order for my business to really thrive, I needed to make a bigger change (please hum “Sweet Home Chicago” here), but at least I had found an outlet for my creative energy.
About a year after opening my Etsy shop, I made the move back up to Chicago with a fresh, new perspective and a desire to show how fun, exciting and beautiful this city is. This creative surge led to many new listings in the shop, as well as kicking off my wood photo block line. That’s when things really started to take off. I could finally see a light at the end of the corporate tunnel.
Last December, I participated in the Etsy Pavilion at the One of a Kind Show and Sale Chicago. My mom was there, and after seeing and hearing reactions to my work live and in person, I turned to her and told her I was going to give my notice. I was afraid she would think I had lost my mind but, without hesitation, she told me she had no doubt it was the right thing for me to do. That following Monday, I very happily gave my notice.
What steps did you take to prepare for transitioning into full-time Etsy selling?
I left a few months before I originally intended to. Luckily, I had been preparing. I spent my first year back in Chicago setting aside as much money as I could, researching insurance options, making budgets, and training myself to live within those budgets (not an easy feat when you’re a photographer; good equipment can be a budget breaker). I learned how to live leaner without being so miserly that I was bored or unhappy.
What is your favorite part in the photography process?
Someone once wrote about my work, “You made my neighborhood look beautiful, and that’s not easy to do.” Some people look at an old neon sign, a dilapidated car or crumbling building and think they’re useless or ugly. I try to find the beauty in everything, even if it’s a beautiful pop of teal in that old, rusty car, or how the pattern of the bricks in the rundown building make a cool mosaic. I am happy to be able to share that vision with others.
What’s been your most popular item or line to date?
Hands down, my wood photo blocks. Things definitely took off, both online and off, when I started creating the blocks. I started out by offering a triptych of vintage cameras, and they were an immediate hit. When I started offering more sizes and personalized options, sales continued to climb. They have been very successful on Etsy and made my work very recognizable locally.
What do you enjoy most about not having a day job?
Aside from the flexibility in hours, making decisions about my business without having to clear it with anyone else. Running my own business, I still have overall accountability, but at least I am the one making the decisions and I am the one making things happen. I no longer have to solve issues arising from red tape or bad judgement on the part of a far removed member of upper management.
What are your best marketing tips?
- Excellent customer service is your best and most important tool. You can offer up the most amazing product ever created, but if your buyers don’t feel you are proud enough of your business to go that extra mile, they won’t be back or recommend you to others.
- Remember that people purchasing from an independent shop expect a personal touch. I have printed thank you postcards that I personally sign, thanking each person for their purchase.
- Give buyers an additional incentive to come back to your shop for more. On my thank you postcard, I include a return buyer coupon code for a percentage off their next purchase.
- Don’t be afraid of social media. Through outlets such as Facebook, my blog and newsletter, I can reach a broader audience, tell my story and introduce my work. It also allows me to spotlight others in a “Meet the Artist” series, as well as offer up tutorials which help keep people engaged.
What tool or technique has been the most effective in getting buyers to your shop?
If you don’t love what you create enough to hang it, wear it, or use it, others will be less inclined to buy it. I speak and write with passion about my work because I am proud of it. I take photographs of subjects that mean something to me, subjects I love, and that helps engage others in my work. I do keep an eye on trends to see what’s “hot,” but I won’t take a photograph if it doesn’t feel right to me. Thankfully, many recent trends have been things I love as well!
What’s the hardest part about running your own business?
Striking a good balance between work and personal life. In a traditional office job, it’s easier to “shut down” at the end of the day. When you own your own business, you’re it: CEO, CFO, creative, customer service, production, the mail room, etc. If you don’t answer the emails, make the product, and come up with the designs, no one else will, so it’s quite difficult to set hours for yourself.
Since my studio is a separate room in my apartment, I try hard to keep my work contained to that area. Sometimes I just need to shut the door and enjoy a good book or dinner with friends. I did a shared community garden plot with a friend this year, and that has been a good way to force myself to step out of the studio. That said, when that little convo notification pops up from the Etsy app, it’s hard not to jump up and answer, no matter the time of night or what you’re doing.
What’s the most exciting thing that’s come of selling your designs on Etsy?
Seeing my work on a Vern Yip special on HGTV as well as on the local news, having one of my pieces written up in Time Out Chicago Kids and others used in a redesign on HGTV.com, taking part in the West Elm/Etsy WE Heart Handmade pop-up here in Chicago — it’s hard to narrow it down. If I had to name one thing, though, it was something that happened at the One of a Kind Show and Sale Chicago. A woman walked up and told me that she had been following my work on Etsy for a while and that my shop was a bookmark on her browser (I was a bookmark!). She said, “Your work makes my heart happy and makes me smile every time I see it,” and actually teared up. I was so floored that my work could move someone so much, I could barely get a thank you out without crying.
What advice would you give to someone considering a similar path?
- Come up with a post-paycheck budget and be realistic about it. Don’t tell yourself you’re okay with eating ramen noodles and never going out to a movie if you aren’t. Setting an unrealistic budget will only serve to make you unhappy and doubt your decision to walk away from the paycheck.
- Make sure you have a support system in place. If you’re doing this business on your own, it can be very isolating. It’s important to have people on board who you can rely on to be your sounding board and gateway to the outside world even if it’s just a five minute phone conversation or a quick cup of coffee.
- Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Etsy was my starting point, and so many amazing things have happened because of the opportunity this venue provided. I was able to use my online shop to branch out locally (wholesale, a retail space at a local galleria, shows, etc.) so that, when I left my job, I had multiple sources of income to temper any fluctuations in sales. Branching out has also helped increase sales in my Etsy shop as more and more people see my work in person.
- Be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day and your shop won’t be either. Your Etsy shop is really no different than opening a brick-and-mortar shop. It takes a lot of hard work, a great deal of time, and a whole lot of patience to run a business, and there is no set timeframe for any business to become successful enough to become the sole means of support. Just keep pushing and tweaking until you find what works.
Anything else you would like to share?
When I decided to leave my job, I was asked if I was scared to take the leap. I would have been crazy not to be; I was walking away from a very good, steady income and benefits. What scared me more was the thought of not taking the chance at all and regretting it years down the road. My father passed away a few years ago, and I learned that life is way too short to wait and see. You owe it to yourself, and those around you, to make your time on this planet as happy and satisfying as you can. You’re worth it!
Lastly, many thanks to Etsy for providing a venue, the tools, and the potential audience to dip my toe in and see how the water felt. I would never have been able to jump in to the deep end were it not for the opportunity provided here.
Thanks for sharing your story, Tracey. Check out her items below.