How Terrance Williams Grew an Etsy Shop Into a Successful Business
The independent designer preaches the value of self-promotion, market research, and not ignoring the dreaded ‘financial stuff.’
Terrance Williams’ path to entrepreneurship started with a Christmas gift.
After his sister gifted him a sewing machine, he took up sewing as a hobby, making his own clothing pieces. Then in 2014, Williams started selling the items on Etsy.
Since then, he has grown his business, Terrance Williams Designs, into a full-time, successful fashion line. Incorporating his passion for sustainability, Williams designs and makes the pieces in small batches using ethically and sustainably produced fabrics.
Q&A with Terrence Williams
Hello Alice caught up with Williams to discuss turning a hobby into a full-time business, being your own boss, and why it’s okay to promote yourself on social media.
You started sewing as a hobby. Was there a turning point where you decided to launch a business?
I had thought about it for a while, and I had set up an Etsy shop, but I didn’t list anything. When I would come to work and wear my own designs, everyone kept telling me, ‘You should sell it.’ Everyone told me that every single day. It was my coworkers who came up to me, and they were like, ‘You seriously need to sell your stuff because it’s so amazing. There are people on Etsy who sell their kids’ macaroni artwork for $500. So if you can sell that, then you can sell your stuff.’ And that was the catalyst for me to start my business.
How did you grow your business into a full-time venture?
It wasn’t something that happened overnight. It definitely took a really long time. But I was doing my business on Etsy and working my full-time jobs from 2014 until 2019. Every time that I went into work, I would be thinking and saying to myself, there’s so much that I could be doing for my business right now. So I quit my full-time job, moved to Dallas, and started my business full time. That’s when I launched my own website, rebranded, and designed a bunch of new products.
It was absolutely terrifying because I was so used to having that safety net of another job and consistent income. But I had been making consistently enough with my Etsy shop that I felt confident. I’m a firm believer in speaking things into existence, and I had been speaking this into existence, and I wanted to do it full time, and I was going to make it happen. I saved up my pennies and rallied my friends and family around me and said, ‘This is what I’m doing.’ And they all said, ‘Okay!’ And here I am!
What are the pros and cons of being your own boss?
Working for yourself and running your own business is amazing because you get free creative control of whatever direction you want your business to go. You really get to make your own schedule and delegate your own tasks. I think it’s amazing that you could have a dream and passion, and you could wake up every single day to do that passion. I get to wake up every day and create things.
But with that, the cons are you are in control of everything. There are parts of my business that I absolutely love like fabric shopping, sourcing fabric, and designing. But then there are the other things like the financial stuff. I’m not good with numbers, so I have every software known to man to do that for me. It’s a lot of work, but it’s work that I love to do.
[Hello Alice Guide: Set Up a Bookkeeping and Accounting System]
You create your pieces with your customers in mind. How do you communicate with your followers to help guide what you make?
I’m very blessed that I have followers who are super engaged with my content and are constantly giving me ideas and suggestions. It’s sometimes difficult being in charge of everything because I know the prints and patterns that I like, but I’m not the one who’s buying my items. It’s important to do a little bit of market research because not only are those people following me, but they’re also buying my item. If they want to see a certain print or pattern, even though I may not be into it, it’s important to provide that for them.
[Hello Alice Guide: Write a Market Research Report]
They’re constantly leaving me suggestions in the comments. I get on Instagram and do different polls. Last week, I asked, ‘If I just did plain colored headbands, what colors would you want to see?’ because I’ve been getting a lot of requests for that. I got hundreds and hundreds of responses. It was a little overwhelming, but it was good because it tells me exactly what people want to buy, which really helps me in the end.
How did you find your customers?
I think it’s difficult at the beginning for anyone. You have products that you absolutely love that you think other people are going to love, but posting it on the internet with a billion other websites and especially on Etsy, it’s really hard to get seen. But I’m not afraid to put myself out there because this was something that I was really passionate about and that I was going to make work.
I use social media to the fullest: Facebook, Instagram, a little bit of Twitter. I was also handing out business cards, talking to small businesses, and networking — everything that I could to get my name out there and doing it consistently.
[Hello Alice Guide: Establish a Social Media Presence]
I think a lot of people have a fear of starting their small business and then over-promoting themselves. I always get the feedback, ‘Well, I don’t want to post on Facebook all the time and annoy people.’ And I always say, ‘Post all the time because the people that are annoyed, they can unfollow you, they can unfriend you, they can mute your posts, but they weren’t going to support you anyway. There are people on Facebook who are going to support you and want to see your content, so you need to keep going.’ Every time that I posted on Facebook, there was someone who would say, ‘I didn’t know you had a business,’ and I would get a sale. It’s just important to keep promoting yourself.
It can seem a little overwhelming, and people might say it’s tacky, but at the end of the day, I’m trying to run my business.
Could you tell us the importance of implementing sustainable practices in your business?
Fashion is one of the biggest contributors to the decline of the planet, so for me, I didn’t want to add more weight when I was creating my line. Even from the very beginning, when I started out at Etsy, sustainability and human rights were super important to me. I went to college at the University of Delaware and got my degree in political science with a concentration in Global Studies and a triple minor in African Studies, Asian Studies, and Women’s Studies. So human rights have always been really important to me. I was going to go to law school, took the LSAT, and decided not to go. I was at a crossroads like, how do I combine my love of fashion with my love of human rights?
[Hello Alice Guide: Embed Purpose Into Your Business]
That’s why I started the whole sustainability aspect. Sustainability is such a broad topic, and it addresses multiple issues, not just the earth and saving the whales and the environment, but also making sure that people are paid fair wages in safe working conditions. When it comes to my business, I source fabric where people are paid fair wages and in safe working conditions and use mailers that are made from 100% recyclable material, so they can be composted, recycled, or reused. Five percent of all sales from the website help companies who are removing carbon from the atmosphere. There are many things that I’m doing, big and small, to help with the sustainability movement.
Do you have any advice for those who want to start a fashion brand of their own?
Number one is to be authentic. A lot of people want to start a fashion brand, and they want to take the easy route and do what everyone else is doing, which is buying things on Alibaba or another place in bulk and just reselling it. But everyone is doing that. People are looking for different items and not necessarily things that they can get from everywhere else.
[Hello Alice Guide: Create a Brand Identity]
It’s also important to have an idea of a mission that you want to accomplish. Mine is sustainability. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be on an activism route; it could just be providing fashion that is unique. It’s really important to tailor your message to something instead of just saying, ‘I just want to start a brand.’ There has to be some kind of brand identity behind it.