“Necessity is the mother of all invention” it is said and that is exactly how Ellie’s Beautiful Mess was born back in 2014.
I was bloody desperate!
My son was 3 months old, my daughter had just started school and our only household income was my ever dwindling maternity pay from my part-time job as a pharmacy dispenser. Instead of being able to enjoy my newborn baby and his newly promoted big-sister, I felt overwhelmed with gut-wrenching panic for our future.
Ok, I had to work to bring in some money. But it had to be a job with an immediate start and one where I could stay home with my children who were still so little. As that kind of job didn’t really exist per se, my only option was to attempt to create one. How do you do that?!
The next day, I walked for a few hours with the pram to a shop where I could buy craft supplies. With £70 in the bank, I sunk £40 into a little ‘startup kit’ grabbing all manner of sparkly, colourful and crafty things that caught my eye.
My plan was to make something - but that really was the only part of a plan that I had formulated.
I wasn’t sure what to make or how to make it as I haven’t sewn anything since primary school and I couldn’t crochet or knit without dropping stitches. Throwing pottery, sculpting, painting, drawing were all beyond my capabilities too and I had no real creative skills to fall back onto at all.
I decided to made my son a cloud mobile… and it was pretty bad.
It was ok for a first attempt I suppose, but the important thing is I had started. It took me three days to complete, diligently hand-stitching it all together and honestly, I felt so proud of myself. I posted this photo on my own Facebook profile and waited for a reaction. I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Ok, here it is. Don’t laugh!
Let me tell you, the people you expect will support you, often don’t. Most of my family and friends had nothing to say and their silence was deafening. Maybe they weren’t impressed or felt a bit embarrassed for me, I dunno. But the important few that did speak up in support were the ones that gave me the confidence to create a Facebook page and just go for it! I had nothing to lose at this point.
Then Facebook asked me, “What is the name of your business?”
Hmmm. I don’t know, Facebook. Good question.
It’s quite difficult to name something when you still aren’t sure what it is yet. I wanted a name that was generally crafty and with cheerful overtones.
Sat at the kitchen table (exactly where I am writing this now), and keen to follow up my first project I had been snipping away at more coloured felt and paused to feed my son. As I was captive, my eyes wandered across the chaos of multicolour scraps covering the table and floor. It was a mess but not an unattractive one. Quite aesthetically pleasing actually.
A beautiful mess. MY beautiful mess. Boom!
The first cover photo for my new Facebook page was the sheets of rainbow felt I’d bought all lined up and ready to make into... something.
With no experience of running a business I used what I affectionately called the “elves and the shoemaker” business model. Do you remember that story? The elves made the shoes and the shoemaker sold them and made enough to buy materials to make two more pairs of shoes and each day it multiplied. This is perhaps a ludicrously business model but to me it made sense. I gauged my pricing so I could replace the materials I’d use making cloud mobiles and have enough to make another one too. This is how I started and how I grew the business.
The kindness of strangers is a wonderful thing.
I remember a friend asking me a month or so after I started up if my orders were all from people I knew and she was shocked when I told her that most of the people ordering I didn’t know at all. I had complete strangers cheering me on and supporting me.
The orders came faster than I could keep up with and I don’t mind telling you that my heart was so grateful as these wonderful strangers were literally helping me put food on the table.
To this day I feel so very lucky that I can make money from home and I’m eternally grateful for every single order. The whole time the business has existed I’ve thankfully never had a time when I’ve had nothing on the books to make for someone...*touches wood* The business was our sole income and it kept a family of four secure and fed at the darkest time of my life.
Selling to people via messaging was proving very time consuming so I created a basic website that looked nice enough and made it easier for my customers to press a button and order.
To sell through a ‘stand alone’ website is tough in a lot of respects compared to selling on a big platform like Etsy or Not On The High Street as you have to generate your own traffic through your own social media. Although it’s maybe harder for people to find you and your products, it does allow you more freedom with zero percentage of your sales going to the ‘management’ which suited my needs.
It’s scary putting yourself and your work out there - what if no one likes it? What if orders suddenly dry up? Even now that is a very real fear. There are times the business has me stressed and pulling my hair out but there are times it pays rewards you can’t even imagine, a lot like having a third child to nurture. You can have a moan from time to time but you don’t ever want it to stop because you plough so much into it that over time it does become an extension of you.
I was taking daily trips to the post office and working all day and late into the night too. I needed more and more materials, equipment and space as this mess was growing and growing and swallowing up our home. That was when I decided that EBM needed premises. Perhaps not my finest financial decision but I’ll come to that later.
What a year 2017 was! I've never been so thrilled, stressed, tired or elated at the year that we "did the shop”. I didn't expect to be signing on any dotted lines. Just a simple enquiry, then a viewing and somehow, without really having the funding, I was handed the keys.
I had a huge office all to myself which I decorated exactly how I wanted, a haven of blush pink and rose gold, geometric loveliness. The sense of pride I had was overwhelming because I’d made this whole mess myself, from more or less nothing but that little £40 startup kit. The endless late nights and years of working were seemingly starting to pay off.
With a large shop area, a little kitchen, my office as a family room with a sofa and telly, our shop was our second home. I hope the kids will remember our happy times there and the parties with us dancing about. We built it ourselves piece by piece, flat pack by flat pack.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and if I’d have known what was coming, perhaps an EBM shop wasn’t the best idea. My personal life fell apart just before the shop opened. I had two miscarriages at 3 months which hit me hard. Thank goodness the website was so busy, it was a handy distraction but, to be honest with you friend, I’d lost heart. Then I ended my relationship and I was a working single mum with two kids... and now had a shop to juggle and pay for.
The business gave me a financial independence which meant that of all the things I had to worry about, thankfully I knew supporting the kids on my own was possible with enough to pay rent on the shop too - hell, I’d been doing that for years already at this point.
I had the shop for 3 years and during that time I met lots of wonderful people but I was s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d. I had turned my lovely stay-at-home job into a real job in the real world and I had to turn out every day between school runs. I had stitched myself right up!
Honestly, the shops years made me miserable and I wanted to be make it work but what I really longed for was to just be at home again without the massive financial burden and without the feeling that I was failing at everything. I was doing everything I should have been but I wasn’t doing anything well. Just recounting this whole period for you makes me remember how trapped and low I felt trying to maintain my responsibilities.
Then, thankfully, there was a global pandemic. I jest of course, but just as I was fast approaching breaking point, the whole world changed around me. We were all forced to stay at home and be with our families and although the world was on fire and reasons were horrifying, my life was centered at home again, my happy place.
The shop lease ended just as the first lockdown happened and I couldn’t open the shop anyway as nothing I sell could be considered ‘essential’. Talk about a nudge in the right direction. It was a ‘no brainer’ that now was the right time to shut up shop and move the business home again.
The relief was euphoric. The dream of a shop was not what I’d envisaged and now I’d finally done my time and I was free. I don’t regret it and I’ll always appreciate the life changing lessons it brought. Maybe one day I will get another shop, its not something I’d rule out, but timing is everything I now realise.
Fast forward to today and I’m still contentedly sat here at my kitchen table. I have a stack of orders to make and my head is full of ideas. This last year I’ve had unanticipated success with my surprise boxes, The Little Boxes of HappyMess and I hope to continue making them bigger and better. The grey fog of the last few years sapped my creativity and I finally feel excited about my business again.
I am lucky enough to have over 20k Facebook followers. I’m currently creeping up steadily to almost 30k followers on Instagram. I post semi-regularly on Twitter and Pinterest with no real understanding of either platform and have actually gone viral on Tiktok with a video that has had over 1 million views.
Sounds great, eh? Not really. You do get lots of attention but it’s not all good and some of it is downright soul-destroying. Nowadays, I stick to what I know and seek only the people made of sugar, spice and only say all things nice to me.
The temptation to just give it all up was never as strong as it was a few years ago but I pushed through and refused to give up on my ‘shop baby’ even when it felt like a completely pointless exercise.
I’ve also got myself a little passion project going with my podcast ‘Girl, Mind Your Business’ where I speak to my fellow small shop owners. These creators and makers are people I greatly admire and I can connect with on a whole new level as we have a giggle and talk about the trials, tribulations and triumphs of running a creative business. Working from home can be isolating so to call up my friends and glean their wisdom is a real treat.
By ‘Shopping Small’ you are supporting a family
I would like to I finish this epic tale with a HUGE thank you. To have a fiver in the bank and nothing else in the world and you hear the ‘ping’ of the website as someone places and order, it’s the sweetest noise! You wonderful people have provided me a lifeline time and time and time again. To buy from a small business supports a family and makes a real-life difference instantly.
However long I’m still making things I’ll always live with this enormous heartfelt gratitude for the support and love you have kindly shown me and allowed me to look after my family by making a big old creative mess!
You’re all amazing to me.
All my love from my full, grateful heart