THE TRUTH OF A FEMALE RUN SMALL ONLINE CREATIVE BUSINESS - PART THREE: HOLLYWOOD, FIFTY SHADES AND FIFTY COUNTRIES
Me and my husband hit a rough patch in our marriage and then I found out I was pregnant with our daughter. I was determined this time around to actually have a proper maternity leave and worked hard with my last mask maker Katrina to make enough stock before she left and I stepped back. Part of the agreement of me and my husband making it work was for him to get a job outside of Samantha Peach. So our daughter was born January 2012 and Samantha Peach was completely shut whilst I enjoyed what I’d missed out on the first time around, the time to properly concentrate on those intense, crazy wonderful newborn months.
Now Google doesn’t like something to be closed down for months on end, so our SEO ranking took a big fall, so it wasn’t the best decision for the business, but it was 100% the best decision for me personally, and it’s a decision I’m still so glad I took and would urge anyone to do similar, I relished every day I got to have with her interrupted and it was unrecognisable to the first time round.
So I took my 9 months statutory maternity leave then reopened the business September 2012 and slowly oiled the wheels and cranked it all back into life again. It was just me as a one woman band again , but this time also with an under 1 year old and a 4 year old and a husband whose new job took him away regularly..so it was INTERESTING…
I sold on Etsy as well as my own website, and after 12 months was able to employ a couple of School Mum friends to help with the wrapping and the making. We were still selling worldwide and every single mask was being made and shipped from a 25 square metre timber studio at the bottom of our garden.
From such a humble starting point these masks went off to all kinds of glamorous places, and we worked regularly with Photographers, Stylists and Designers making masks for many magazines including Vogue, fashion shows such as the Victoria’s Secret show and TV such as Strictly Come Dancing as well as making large custom orders for numerous Brands like Grey Goose Vodka ( that one deserves it’s whole own page one day, as it involved us all frantically beavering away just before Christmas to get them made in time for NYE, with police up on the top floor of our house and in the surrounding gardens and police helicopters overhead trying to find somebody who’d obviously done something VERY bad and had run through our garden to escape capture)
But running alongside all the glamorous commissions and orders was the reality of running a creative business with staff from the bottom of the garden of your home. Looking after a sick child in the living room whilst your staff have to tiptoe past to go to the toilet or use the kitchen to heat up their lunch in the microwave WEARS THIN eventually.
By the start of 2015 sales were dipping again and I was back down to just me and one member of staff, and April that year I made the tough decision to close down the website I’d put years of work into and made one last throw of the dice by getting some of the bestselling masks onto Amazon UK. We’d sold on eBay for years, and had an Etsy store and of course our own website, but whenever I’d looked into selling on Amazon the whole Barcode SKU system just seemed impossible for a creative business where you’re making the product individually from scratch, there WERE no barcodes or SKU’s!
So with zero knowledge on how to get a barcode onto something, I dug in and making a ton of expensive mistakes along the way I figured it out enough so that by the busy period of that year I was selling only on Amazon and selling enough masks that I needed to hire mask makers to help out again. But this time I tried to do it differently, and the team picked all their materials up from me and took them back to their own work spaces to do the actual making, then brought back the finished masks. The beauty of Amazon was that I simply filled massive boxes with all the (carefully barcoded!) masks, shipped them off to their fulfilment centres and they then handled all the shipping and returns, after years and years of wrapping and posting every single parcel ourselves this was HUGE and transformed the freedom and flexibility I had running my own business.
Anyone who has ever bought anything on Amazon knows that fast delivery is it’s greatest strength, 7 days a week and even same day delivery on many of the masks, which is something neither Royal Mail nor any of the Courier services I’d tried over the years could ever offer. Masquerade mask customers tend to have an unusually large number of last minute panic buyers ( I’ve always had this mental picture of customers looking at their Party Invite a few days before the night and going “ *&%$£ aaaaarggh it’s a MASQUERADE Party!!!!” ), I’d had so many emails over the years from customers asking if they could drive to the studio to buy a mask they needed urgently, and finally they could buy one even when they’d left it right up to the wire..
The business was only on the UK Amazon market and was just starting to look buoyant again, but my husband was thoroughly miserable in the job he’d been doing for the past 3 years, so I told him to resign and we’d figure something out, life was too short to be that ground down. So he got his last wage just before Christmas and we started 2016 with only my wage which just about covered the mortgage and that was IT.
Working back together side by side again, the first priority was to get the masks onto the other Amazon markets, as so much of the business has always been International. We got Samantha Peach Masks onto German Amazon, French Amazon, Spanish Amazon and Italian Amazon, then we set our sights on getting set up on Amazon.com to cover the USA. Again this was a whole new level of learning on our feet, with a new system to understand and more expensive mistakes made with the first shipments we sent over to be stored directly in the States. What was exciting about having stock stored IN the States was that for the first time ever our American customers could buy our masks quickly and get two day free shipping, previously we’d had to use expensive couriers for orders customers were desperate for over in the States.
One of our very first American Amazon customers turned out to be Universal films, they ordered our Silver Goddess lace mask in multiples then contacted me officially to ask for permission to use it in the filming of a Hollywood movie. Now we’d made masks for plenty of theatre and tv productions before, and although it was always a nice ego boost, it never made any real difference to sales afterwards..
But this time it was different, the movie turned out to be Fifty Shades Darker, the second movie made as part of the Worldwide PHENOMENON that was E L James’s Fifty Shades Trilogy..the trailer for Fifty Shades Darker came out in September 2016 and the main female lead Dakota Johnson who plays “Ana” Anastasia Steele was wearing MY silver goddess lace mask, in every poster promoting the movie, in every trailer, the mask was there larger than life. Fifty fans are a devoted bunch, and overnight I got emails from all over the world from people wanting to buy the same mask. We sold out instantly across every Amazon marketplace, and struggled to keep it in stock.
The mask was used on the book tie in, the cd soundtrack, and I knew things had reached a whole new level of crazy when an American fan showed me footage of the Superbowl that year with Taylor Swift on stage singing her song from the movie soundtrack, and the backdrop was a massive screen with our silver lace goddess mask in closeup..
Then Universal films contacted me about us making 5 THOUSAND masks ( our largest bulk order previously had been more like 5 HUNDRED masks) to be given out at the Premiere of the movie in February 2017, we gulped, did the figures and said yes, then that figure just kept going up as Universal added in more and more countries who were hosting Premieres of Fifty Shades Darker. I think it ended up being more than double that we made from our small timber studio in the UK and sent out to nearly 50 countries around the world. Everything had to scale up very quickly, we needed more mask makers desperately and had a team of makers all making as much as they could manage each week from their own homes, ticking off each country one by one as we rushed to get them all shipped in time for the Premiere of the movie.
It was huge and intense and a bit surreal and I had my 15 minutes of fame with radio and tv and press interviews and a fabulous night getting to walk the red carpet at the Premiere too, but the most wonderful part of it all ( apart from making enough money to pay a good chunk of the mortgage off ) was seeing a Samantha Peach Mask on a Hollywood actress splashed across Movie Posters in every language and country in the world, when I’m a very old lady sat in my rocking chair looking back at my life, THAT will be quite a story to share with my grandchildren
We worked with Universal again twice on a limited edition DVD version of the movie that came with the mask, and then in 2018 on a Box Set of the whole Fifty Shades trilogy that included two Samantha Peach masks that were the same design but in different colours. I’ll be forever grateful that Universal Films trusted us not once, not twice, but three times to deliver such large quantities on tight deadlines. And I’ll be forever proud that this small business stretched the upper limits of what we thought we could do, and just DID it. I hope our children will see what we did and learn to say yes when opportunities come their way, even when you don’t know how you can possibly do them
I wish I could just end this on this high note really, but if this is going to be a brutally honest and genuinely authentic account of the highs and lows of running a creative online business then I need to bring you up to date too. Once we’d all come back down to earth and we were back to normal staff levels, I was pretty burnt out and exhausted and needed to recover from the crazy rollercoaster we’d been on and my body needed to recover from the punishing schedule ( at its peak I was seeing my physio twice a week like a knackered old boxer being taped back together to go out for one last fight).
The downside of making a mask that becomes high profile is that we were beseiged by dozens of versions of it being sold as the genuine thing, it was demoralising to have to prove legally again and again that an unscrupulous company wasn’t selling the real deal but a cheap copy. Fakes and copies are so easy to sell over the internet, and I’m not sure my skin is thick enough to not get worn down by it all.
Last year was spent working on a new Samantha Peach website for the US, then one for our original UK market too, along with trying to find my creative spark again and find ideas for new masks. Honestly, I think it’s taken me writing all this down to realise that that path of putting new designs out there probably came to a natural wonderful climax with the Fifty Shades chapter ( although never say never) and it feels like the perfect high to end on.
I start 2020 ready for a new challenge and a new direction. As I write this we are still making a core range of our masks and selling them across the Amazon marketplaces, but I’m also ready to do it all a bit differently. If you’re reading this then you’ll have found one of the new websites that I will be pouring love into this year and opening up to who knows what.
I’ve been doing this long enough now to know EXACTLY what customers are looking for in a masquerade mask or JUST what they need to host a Masked Ball or Masquerade Party that is a roaring success, and want to put that useful knowledge out there onto this World Wide Web. I know the Mask World better than almost anyone after all these years, and I know who is making the good stuff ( and who isn’t). I’m not sure yet exactly how I’ll do it, but I want to use my experience and knowledge to help people find what has bought them to this website.
I guess this was the first step, putting this highly self indulgent story of Samantha Peach onto the page and into the world, reading it back through I can see how many times I’ve needed to adapt or pivot to keep doing the part that means the most to me, which is being in charge of my own story, for good or bad, carving out a living and a business from thin air and throwing things up into the air to see what sticks. If you’ve read this all the way to the end, thank you and watch this space, I’ve no idea what the next chapter will look like, but I promise I’ll keep you posted x
(Ursula Kelly Photography)
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