THE TRUTH OF A FEMALE RUN SMALL ONLINE CREATIVE BUSINESS - PART ONE : VINTAGE, EBAY , MASQUERADE MASKS AND NEW BEGINNINGS
For a while now I’ve wondered if I was brave enough to write a real warts and all honest account of how Samantha Peach the business came about. I've had so many conversations over the years with people asking how I got into the Mask business, and I give them the highlights reel version, concentrating on the best bits, but I'm not sure even my husband and closest friends and family know the full story from the very beginning. Now I love the About Us page of any website I visit, I'm always interested to hear the story of how someone started their venture, and what challenges they've had along the way, and I have enormous respect for anyone who can be authentic and genuine and HONEST about running a business. I think it’s fair to say my 17 year path has been quite the adventure. It’s January 2020 as I sit writing this, the start of a whole new decade and a real crossroads for Samantha Peach Masks, and it feels like the perfect time to get it all down on paper. If I drop dead tomorrow ( touches wood ), then I've put it out there for anyone who knows me to read if nothing else, and I hope anyone who reads this and doesn't know me can also take away something positive from it all, I really do.
Way back , I was married to a kind and decent man I’d been with since University, he’d been by my side for years of hard times coming from a gymnastics accident when I was a child - hospitals, morphine and a ton of pain was a large part of the story of my childhood and 20’s, and whilst all our College friends graduated and left to go away travelling the world having adventures, sowing wild oats and making all the outrageous mistakes you should be at that age, we stayed in Nottingham in the UK where we'd met at University and settled down straight away.
He had a steady new graduate job and I was constantly trying to find things I could do that were flexible enough to work around the long periods when I couldn’t do anything useful at all . It was was beyond frustrating for both of us after I'd successfully got my Honors degree despite needing to take a whole year out of my degree to have surgery and taking my finals lying on the floor of a lecturers office ( that sounds super dodgy reading it back, it wasn't that kind of lying down! ).
When I was in a good phase with minimum pain and fatigue ( and oh my goodness those days were all the sweeter for being few and far between ), I’d throw myself into a creative thing to sell - there were SO many but two that got to the selling phase were my Mosaic Mirror phase and my Fake Fur photo frames phase which kind friends and family bought from me ( if there's one thing I took from that time, it's that if your friends and family are the only ones buying, it means you've got lovely friends and family, it doesn't necessarily mean you have a great business idea).
Then I started Sam Giles-Rowley Handmade Cards, using up the leftover stock of mosaic tiles ( see left image for the only surviving card from that time, I still have it up on my noticeboard all these years later..) and fake fur to make the first batch of cards. We had a little rescue Yorkshire terrier and I’d done up an old sit up and beg Raleigh bike I’d found in the cellars of the big old Victorian house we had our first flat in, with a wicker basket on the front and the dog in the basket along with my samples, I’d cycle around local stores in Nottingham and see if they’d sell my cards, looking worryingly like Mary Poppins..
I remember I had a fancy baby clothes store selling the New Baby cards, a bookstore took some, a gift store and a cafe all stocked them and because I was a massive naive fool I had offered them all on a sale or return basis. Anyone who has ever done this will tell you it’s a really good way to make someone else’s business look nicely stocked, and also a really good way to lose money. Stock gets damaged and it’s on you, stock gets mislaid or stolen and it’s on you. Plus you have to make a big investment upfront to give out the stock and IT MAY NEVER SELL.
After a couple of years of doing the cards, along with some Wedding stationery commissions I was still barely scraping by and not pulling my weight financially ,so I managed to get a part time job through a friend in a restaurant. I worked lunchtimes and Saturday nights and it felt AMAZING to earn regular money without the same slog and uncertainty, and after years of my world often being limited to the house or just the bed, being out in the real world working in the vibrant and creative part of town was just wonderful and I LOVED that job.
New Years Eve of 2002 I voiced what I'd known for some time, that my marriage had slowly turned into something it shouldn’t be. He was a good man who’d done nothing wrong, but it wasn’t right anymore. After years of pain and illness I threw myself too hard into going out after working in the restaurant with a group of new friends who knew nothing about my sad and sorry history , then a week before my birthday in 2003 I woke up and knew I couldn’t stay in my old life one more day and walked out of the beautiful home we’d made together, got into my battered old car with practically nothing else, and stayed on the floor of friends I’d made in the restaurant. Even 17 years later, I wish I’d done it better - he deserved better after standing by my side for so many brutally tough years which shaped his 20’s as much as mine. ( side note, he has since happily remarried too and had children of his own)
So in early 2003 it was still relatively early days for any kind of Internet retail. The long back story helps explain how I sold my very first things on the Internet. I started selling the vintage clothes I had on eBay as I was horribly broke and needed to start my life from scratch. My friends landlord took pity on me sleeping on their floor and offered me a tiny two up two down terraced house to rent. I felt so incredibly guilty about walking out of my marriage that I took as little as possible out of our old home, and moved in without a tea towel , knife or fork to my name. I can remember finding an old sofa outside in the street and bringing it into my tiny lounge area so I had something to sit on. I slept on a borrowed mattress on the floor ( which frankly was a step up from sleeping on my friends floor) and as hard and lonely and desperately sad as it was, I didn’t go back to my old relatively comfortable life. I cried every day for months, and would then put my makeup on and go out with my new friends and drink and laugh and dance, and then go and sit in a club toilet and cry some more - it’s fair to say it was just ALL the emotions.
It’s a strange thing to be horrified that you’ve hurt someone that didn’t deserve it, but not go back. So my Selling Stuff on the Internet career came from that period - I’d take my laptop out into my postage stamp sized backyard ( no garden with a nice lawn anymore), with a pile of vintage clothes under my arm and measure and photograph and clean and mend and upload them onto eBay, then some things would sell really well whilst others would go for less than I’d paid for them. Back in early 2003 it was the Wild West for Vintage clothes on eBay. I called my store Sam’s Lovely Things ( whilst writing this I unearthed the very first business card for it) and although none of us on eBay back then really knew what we were doing, we figured it out by making every mistake in the book along the way ( truth be told, the only way I've learned how to do ANYTHING with regards to starting, owning and running an online retail business has been by doing it all wrong in order to then figure out how to do it better next time).
I loved selling the Vintage clothes, and travelled around the UK going to very unglamorous jumble sales and every Charity shop and local auction house I could find to unearth the good stuff. To make the clothes look a bit more exciting in their photographs on eBay, I dusted off all the bits and pieces I still had from my numerous failed creative ventures and started making ribbon chokers and huge flower brooches to style up the vintage jackets and dresses I was selling. This led to customers asking to buy the matching blowsy brooch when they won an auction, which in turn led to a whole new section of Sam’s Lovely Things which was more like a traditional shop, selling new handmade by me chokers and corsages and brooches for a fixed price instead of auctions.
Customers found my internet store from all over the world, and every day I’d iron all the clothes that had sold, make the accessories that needed making and wrap them up in layers of tissue paper with a little thank you chocolate in with the package, and I’d drag my parcels round to the local Post Office and stand in line to ship them off all over the UK, and across Europe and the rest of the world, particularly to the USA ( you guys in the States REALLY loved all the British vintage labels back then ). When you’re a one (wo)man band you get up and do what needs to be done no matter what, even if you’re ill there are emails to answer and issues to sort out, parcels to be wrapped and postage deadlines to make..
By early 2004 I started to make enough income to tentatively spread my wings and get flights over to some of the best flea markets in and around Paris and Amsterdam. I’d fly out with empty bags and fly home with bags stuffed to the gills with gorgeous vintage pieces and get down to the hard work of cleaning and mending and measuring and photographing and listing and keeping my fingers crossed that Sam’s Lovely Things customers would feel the same about what I’d fallen for on my travels. I’d met a Welshman living in Amsterdam and had an intense long distance relationship during which I sold all my belongings to start afresh with him in Prague before it eventually ended tempestuously.
My old house sold and with my share of the profits I took myself off to New York on my own for a month, somewhere I’d ALWAYS wanted to go. I stayed in an actors apartment on Rivington street in the Lower East Side and spent my days scouring every flea market and vintage store I could find. I shipped bags of vintage treasure back home so it would be waiting for me when I finally finished my adventure.
Sam’s Lovely Things had grown to sell vintage style shoes, bags and accessories along with the handmade corsages and chokers and the genuine Vintage clothes and accessories. Anyone who has ever sold anything on eBay knows how long it takes to list and photograph individual pieces, so as much as I loved the Vintage, I knew I needed to add in new stock that I could sell in quantities bigger than One.. In Paris I was at a Trade Fair looking for new stock that fit the feel of Sam’s Lovely Things when I saw a grumpy Italian sat slumped down in his chair behind his stall, ignoring everyone who walked up to his stall full of Venetian masks ( anyone who has ever gone to a Trade Show will know how unusual that is, desperate eye contact is the norm).
I knew NOTHING about Venetian masks but they appealed to the theatrical costumier side of me inherited from my Mum ( who worked at the BBC for years in the Wardrobe department as the Wardrobe Mistress and introduced me as a child to all the wicker hampers full of fabulous original vintage pieces and costumes they housed, and a never ending supply of costumes and outfits from Angels and other serious Costume hire agencies ).
So I made a tentative small order, with no idea if they’d sell on the Internet and particularly on eBay BUT THEY DID - I started introducing them alongside all the vintage clothes and accessories and they just grew and grew, and the beauty of it was that I could photograph each different mask once from different angles, describe it once, then sell hundreds of them from just one listing. For the first time it felt like less of an uphill struggle, I’d moved into a shared house with a female friend and the top large attic room was my workroom and over time it just filled up to the brim with feathered masks and fabulous handpainted Venetian designs.
Like a mad lady in the attic I was up there all day every day, listing and photographing and making and mending and wrapping and packing and it slowly but surely grew and grew organically. I wasn’t business savvy enough to know about business plans or loans or finance so I only ever used profit from the business, and all these years later I still operate the same way - Part Two next
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