Laurie and Cindy, his mother, manufacture and sell hand dyed fabric used for puppet skins to professional puppet builders around the world. The e-Commerce is now making $9,000/month. But they had to pass through some harsh moments at their beginning.
February 21, 2019
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My name is Laurie Nickerson and I and the co-owner of Puppet Pelts. At Puppet Pelts, we manufacture and sell hand dyed fabric used for puppet skins to professional puppet builders around the world.
Our Pelts are made from a textile that is really only used for puppets. It is a wonderfully stretchy nylon fleece fabric that is milled in the United States. We buy the fabric in white and dye it a bunch of colors to sell to our customers.
I was building puppets for fun. I discovered that the fabric you could buy online was only available in white, forcing any puppet builder to have to dye it on their own to change the color. Dyeing the fabric is really difficult in small spaces like apartments where I was living at the time. So, once I got a studio space, I offered dyeing services catered to puppet builders.
I started by getting one roll (50 yards) of white nylon fleece from our fabric distributor, Larry. And, when I say Larry, he is the only guy on the planet who has access to the fleece mill. Up until this point, to obtain the fabric, you had to know about Larry (he only has a phone number, no website), or shop at another online store that only carried it in white, or a few select colors. (That shop also got their fleece from Larry.) Larry used to run a mill and he fell into this world of puppets as well. Jim Henson approached him about a textile he was making for the interior of shoes. So the two of them created this unique “skin” for puppets. Larry has since sold the mill and now is just a fabric distributor. He is like this mythical elusive fleece unicorn.
The dyes we started off using were essentially, craft dyes. They were really unstable and hard to reproduce colors time and time again. So, there was a lot of frustration there. After about two years of fighting these dyes, we switched over to acid dyes which allow us a lot more control.
I was lucky enough to have a super niche market. Puppet makers also really love to talk about process and share information on materials. There’s a Facebook page called Puppet Maker’s Workshop and it just is a group for puppet makers to post photos of what they are working on, and questions they have if they get stumped. When I first launched, I posted a message there explaining I was now offering dyed fabric. About 99% of people find out about our company through this Facebook page. I started off by replying to questions, and comments about our product, but now people do that for me atomically. “Oh, you are looking for fleece? Send a message to Laurie at Puppet Pelts.” I also really love this venue because it allows me to be a “human.” If someone is working on a budget and can’t afford to use our fleece, it is important for me to let them know that puppets can be made out of anything. They don’t HAVE to be made with our fleece. But, by being accessible, when they do have the budgets to use higher quality materials, they know where to find me.
I also started running Facebook ads. What I was surprised to discover that there’s a huge number of puppet makers in Mexico that didn’t know our company existed before I started these ads. Initially, I used data collected over the past couple of years to determine which countries purchase from us the most. Our ads were then targeted to those countries. On a whim, I added Mexico to the list. While only two or three orders were shipped there, the orders we did have were large. So, I figured, “why not.” What I discovered was that once I started running Facebook ads in Mexico, it became one of the top countries for impressions and click-throughs. It also resulted in an in-studio visit from someone visiting Vegas on vacation, and a big increase in orders from Mexico made through our online shop. What I love about Facebook ads is that we can set our budget. Right now, we are spending $30 a month. It makes it really easy to reach potential customers.
Another avenue I explored was partnering with puppet builders. One of our customers has a youtube channel where he teaches people how to build puppets. He approached me and asked about potentially swapping material for a shout out on his channel. We sent him a box of a range of skin tones and in exchange, he added our store to his list of supplies. It’s actually working out really well. We get a lot of hits from first-time builders who are new to the puppet world that way.
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The first obstacle was actually before we opened our studio. It is kind of beaten into your head that if you want to start a business, you need to get funding. So, I tossed the idea of getting a business loan. I hated the idea of debt because I have done the student loan rodeo and it is such a downer. So instead, my business partner (and mom) decided to make a go of it without a huge bank loan. Instead, we saved up enough for 6 months of rent and approached the landlord of building with our idea. We wanted to pay 6 months of rent up front if he would knock $200 of rent off per month. Miraculously, he agreed. So we had 6 months of wiggle room to figure things out before we had to turn a profit and actually HAD to pay rent. This was such a great buffer for us.
We also decided that we would share our space for the first year while we figured things out. We split the rent with a woman who was a costume maker. Her business was similar to ours, but different enough where we wouldn’t compete. She ended up staying with us for 4 years and the partnership worked out really well. It cut down on overhead, and we both were able to bounce ideas off each other.
Another obstacle was actually figuring out our process. Now, this sounds crazy, but we started a business that we had zero experience in. I had built puppets and dyed fabric just for myself, but never professionally. And when I say I built puppets, I made 4 in total. That’s 4 yards of fleece I dyed before I launched into a business. I was dyeing the fleece in a plastic tub in my kitchen. But, I knew there was a need for dyed fleece and began to research how to do it on a larger scale.
When I first launched, I was dyeing every piece in my washing machine using Rit dye which is what I call, “the gateway dye.” It is available at every craft store and grocery store. So, I bought a bunch of colors and off I went. The challenge came when I tried to recreate the same color twice. Rit has dye particles in it for all sorts of fabric types. So, you dump the dye it, and the dye particles for nylon stick to the fabric and the ones for cotton go down the drain. When you dump out 2oz of the dye into the dyebath, there’s really no way of knowing how many nylon particles are in there. One run might come out darker or lighter even if you put the same 2oz of dye in. I found this SUPER frustrating and it created a lot of waste.
I also wanted a way to dye more yardage at a time. So, I began researching other methods of dyeing. Because there’s not a “how-to-dye-puppet-fleece” tutorial online, I started looking at what costume shops were doing. The gal we were sharing our space with was the perfect resource. She had a connection with the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and they had a DYE ROOM! So, we took a day trip out there to meet with their head of costuming for a tour of their space. What an amazing experience. This trip really took our business to the next level. We were able to talk to a guy who not only had dyeing experience but could help us figure out the equipment we need. Ironically, the item we really needed was a GIGANTIC soup pot.
We also were introduced to acid dyes. They are a much more stable dye where you measure the pigment out exactly, based on the weight of the fabric. So, every run of that color comes out the same. SO BRILLIANT.
With the knowledge we needed to switch to acid dyes and purchase a giant soup pot, we took a leap of faith and financed the equipment. Our 60-gallon soup pot, whom we lovingly call Gertrude, was over $10,000. She was our first real investment into the business. When she arrived, we had to learn the new process of dyeing with acid dyes. We had to just try colors out to see what happened. We had to rebuild our swatch library from scratch because the Rit dye wasn’t compatible with Gertrude. Again, there was a ton of trial and error and figuring out our process. But, I feel we are finally in a place now where we have everything down and can call ourselves “professionals.”
A big disadvantage is not having solid accounting skills. The biggest time-suck we have now is doing our books. We use Quickbooks, and I don’t care what anyone says, that program is not quick or easy. If we were to do it all again, we would definitely take a course in “Quickbook for dummies.” We have always been the type to just, “figure things out as we go” but with accounting, it isn’t something that comes easily to us. So it was, and is, a huge cause of panic and angst.
The biggest mistake was in our pricing. When we first started, we priced the fabric based on materials, but not really our time. So, about a year into it, we raised our prices. I was so nervous to do so. I thought people wouldn’t buy our fleece anymore and that everyone would be mad. Basically, I was reacting with my heart, not my brain. What I learned though was, if the product is good quality, people will buy it even at a higher price. We opted to have a range in price so we wouldn’t price anyone out of using the fleece. Our value for Core Colors starts at $27 per yard. These are either mill-dyed in bulk, or dyed by us in large batches. They are typically in stock at all times and have your basic color selection. If you want something a bit different, or an usual shade, you will pay more for the premium colors. We have found that new builders who want access to the fleece will splurge to buy a yard at $27, but maybe not $38 for a premium color. Once they get better at building, they then will move up to the more expensive pieces.
I would have started sooner. It’s a bit daunting to take a leap of faith and put yourself out there. And especially with my business, I still get a lot of weird looks when I tell people “I dye Muppet skins” for a living. There’s always the folks who never really understand that you can make a living in the arts. So my advice to anyone reading this is, it is okay to march to the beat of your own drummer and go against the grain. It took me a while to find my beat, and that’s okay. The point is, I found it eventually and I could not be happier.
This is silly, but I never really read up on business 101 stuff. I don’t really consider myself a business owner. I guess I am, but I always call myself an artist or maker first. I probably would know how to reconcile my bank account better if I did read up on some of that stuff.
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