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Behind The Scenes

Scale the unscalable

Why have I built such a complicated business?

I was on the train the other day and happened to meet a customer (we spotted each others Fabled Thread bags!). She had come across The Fabled Thread during lockdown and has followed along ever since. She happened to run her own business too so were talking about shipping (if you run a physical product business, you spend the majority of your time talking about shipping), and I mentioned the challenges of international shipping, particularly in relation to paint. She stopped me: “why are you shipping paint?” Despite following along with the business for years, she wasn’t aware of our framing business, or the paint-your-own-frames collection.

This conversation resonated with another chat I had with a friend dealing with similar issues. Her customers can choose from a vast array of colour combinations for her homewares, resulting in countless possible configurations. Her investors have been pressuring her to simplify her business - reduce the choices or else it’s not scalable and fulfilment will become a nightmare.

Finally I was listening to one of my many marketing podcasts all about building traction on social media and it stressed the importance of a consistent message; algorithms need clarity about your identity and purpose to effectively place you. A scattered message will never enable you to achieve strong reach.

These conversations struck a chord - my business is anything but simple. We sell embroidery kits, painted frames, fabrics, threads, virtual courses, a subscription membership, needlepoint designs, paints, events, refill kits, customisable kits, unpainted frames, mounting materials, piping…. On and on it goes. Why is my business so complicated? How can we be scalable when everything is so bespoke?

During our annual sale last week, as the team and I packed up hundreds of orders, the variety from one to the next was immense. We now have over 1,000 SKUs with just 4 team members. For instance, our Jabberwocky kits alone come in multiple variations: kit only, kit as a refill, kit with a box frame, kit with a wide frame, sets of three kits, and sets of three kits with frames. It’s a lot to handle!

The kit as a trio
The single kit with a wide frame
The single kit with a box frame

Where did I go wrong?

When I started the business, I launched with a vision of just one kit range, The Fables. These went down a storm. But I soon realised there was quite a divide between those who do embroidery and those who do needlepoint - rarely do the two lines cross! I wanted projects to also appeal to needlepointers so we introduced the Just So range. Next, I wanted to photograph our Fables in a way that fit the folk art aesthetic, so developed some painted frames. Immediately customers started asking for the frames too, so we introduced our hand painted frames. Every batch of frames I launched started selling out, I couldn’t keep up with demand. In parallel some people were priced out of being able to get out hand-painted frames, so next came a range of unpainted frames and a paint collaboration.

The story go on… everything has been iterative, based on customer feedback. Given everyone is different, that means we need a lot of things! Whilst the whole time I have just been trying to make the shopping experience as simple as possible, I have inadvertently created such a lot of complexity.

But! A positive! The diversity of orders we had during the sale shows that it works - no two orders were the same. Our offering is as unique as our audience. You may have gotten the same kit and frame, but you’ll have chosen a different paint colour. We don’t have a hero product or a dud product - everything across the range sells and appeals to someone, we are remarkably, very evenly, diversified.

However it doesn’t make for an easy business. Whilst each new product we launch has been gradual and based on what I believe will make you happy, I don’t always think through the knock on effects of the decisions. I decided to expand our paint-your-own-frames range alongside the new website launch to include more shapes and sizes to give you better choice, but that means we now need to hold more stock, have more storage space, extra illustrations to put inside the new shapes, a wide variety of mounting kits… one simple decision leads to knock on effects for the team and the financial requirements of the business.

Or take the example of the Limited Edition kits… one of the least scalable ideas imaginable. I released the designs in blind faith that, over the course of a month, enough of you will want the design in order to enable us to recoup the costs associated with designing and making a one-off kit. If it’s a hugely successful design, we can’t repeat it. It doesn’t get less scalable than that!

Have we lost the patience to explore?

Last month I launched one of our most complex products. We hand-painted a small number of bespoke frames and paired them with fabrics and threads in complementary colour palettes: the rationale being we give you all the materials to create your own design but we don’t create the design itself. They were a way of encouraging you to be creative, whilst still slightly holding your hand. We sold them just to our studio membership through The Studio Shop (adding another layer of friction, as if we needed it). Now, they all sold out very quickly, so obviously some people understood it. But I know for a fact those are our dedicated customers who have taken the time to follow my wild looping logic for products, and have been doing so for the last few years. Given the average person spends a mindbogglingly small 45 seconds on a website, how would anyone else have figured it out!

I spoke to a paid advertising agency who told me our website home page needs to have fewer big images and just get straight to the products. Lose those phrases like “some stories are written in ink, ours are told in needle and thread”, replace them with simple words like “craft kits for beginners”. It removed all the romance of the business for me. I was firmly told no one will take the time to dig a page deep into the website. It is slightly heart breaking when I just spend a small fortune redesigning the website to make it more of an exploration for customers. Does anyone have the patience to try understand what we do? Does anyone want to explore?

Limited by our complexity

We make everything in house, from winding thread onto bobbins, hand-painting frames, packing kits, recording how-to guides, designing instructions, running workshops: it’s all from our studio in Islington. So this obviously does limit the business. Maintaining this wide spread of products means a lot of our capital is locked up in stock and it takes a skilled (and highly organised!) team to deliver the product offering. We can’t outsource our fulfilment, we can’t offer next day shipping, we can’t invest in the same way we could if we had a smaller product range.

Our complexity is a limitation and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t worry me. At times I have major doubts about whether we need to hugely strip back what we offer to make it much easier to understand. I want to be able to explain what we do in less than 45 seconds.

But every time I think about it, and I go through the range, I think of each of those individual customers who buy the different parts of our range. To Amy who has been stitching our samplers for each latest grandchild. To Sophia who have been building confidence in painting frames. To Nicola who is embarking on her own designs and has started choosing her own fabrics and threads. To Yvonne who has been working through the entire Fables range. To Michelle who stitches tapestry kits when wanting something to switch off with. To Grace who uses our one-off painted frames as inspiration for creating her own designs. To Sarah who watches all our virtual talks to build her creative confidence. How can I stop offering things when I know the people intimately who are enjoying them. I don’t want to.

So we are left with one choice… to scale the unscalable!

Scale the unscalable

The complexity of our business is our superpower. We have such a wide range of products because we have such an engaged community and we listen to you. You tell me you want a new shape of frame, I’ll do it. You ask for stencils, I’ll make them. In doing so, we have been able to build really strong relationships with our audience. Whilst only 5% of you may understand the full extent of our products or services, if I give you time and I have patience, that will build. Or even if it forever remains at 5%, our loyal customers give us our resilience. The number of people who message me saying “you don’t need to do things as quickly, I’ll wait for you” is unbelievable. In a world of noise, we have people who are willing to wait for us. It’s what means I never worry about competitors, my designs being copied, or our longevity as a business. If I simplify the business, we lose our uniqueness and we stop being able to cater to niche tastes or unique customer needs. We lose the essence of what we are doing. In turn, your trust in me means you are then willing to take a punt if I do go a bit mad with one of our offerings, meaning I can dream big and dream weird, knowing you are there alongside.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard work. When Georgina (our studio manager) went on maternity leave last month it was the first time we both fully took stock of how much knowledge there was to hand over to someone. Likewise I never have enough cash to do everything we want to because we have so much locked up in stock. And marketing is a bit of a nightmare - we can’t give a clear message across our site of channels so ranking on socials and search engines is 10x harder. It basically won’t happen without some expert help or paid advertising.

But at the end of the day, I started this business for the love of creativity. A simple business feels like the antipathy to creativity. Creativity is messy, it’s complicated, it’s personal, and it’s immensely exciting. So whilst I’ll never be able to fully explain The Fabled Thread in 45 seconds, I don’t think I need to. We will embrace the challenge and scale the unscalable!