Debra Zeleznik owns Rubber Stamp Plantation, which she founded 24 years ago as a small home-based business supplying Hawaii themed rubber stamps. Her business thrived as she sold wholesale to retailers all over the country, and today she sells many different products.
We caught up with Debra to ask about her experience growing a small business.
ABI: What do you feel makers need to know before they launch a business?
DZ: You should know that people want what you make. Get honest feedback. Do your research. What have you sold? Is everybody else as excited about your work as you are?
I always tell people to at first keep their day job. And, if there are parts of your business that you don’t like, get people on your team to take over those parts.
ABI: What was your biggest challenge in getting traction, and how did you overcome it?
DZ: I would have to say I am a plodder, slow and steady. I invest small amounts of money that I can afford, and that I am confident will return my investment within a year. I only borrowed what I knew I could pay back. I didn’t go quickly. I said “yes” to almost everything. If someone wanted a special order, I said “sure.”
I said yes to packaging, fixtures, to store demos and trunk shows. I showed up anywhere anybody asked. I joined every organization. I contributed to silent auctions. If I knew there was something I could provide that people really wanted, I did it.
I look at trends, colors, designs that are out there – and I am fascinated. I am willing to give things a try, and let them either sell, or fail. The great thing about wholesale is that I don’t have to keep a lot of inventory. We have so much flexibility as makers, to listen to what store owners want, and customize items. This deepens my relationship with my wholesale customers.
ABI: You spend a lot of time helping other creative entrepreneurs in Hawaii get started. What is your vision for the future of these artists?
DZ: I hate to see people struggling so much. I want for them to bask in their creative joy and be able to properly support themselves. We have an amazing creative community here and there is no reason not to be thriving. Wholesaling is a way to sell that brings stability, and artists need to learn that.
Stores want to provide the best experience for their customers, and have fabulous, beautiful things available. Their biggest need is for more work and to be able to trust artists to be consistent, be on time, be flexible and have a marketable price. They don’t want to go to China if they can get dependable handmade products that are made here. They want to work with artists who have professional practices.
I see creative people crippled by fear. They need to be empowered by learning how to develop some basic professional skills. Know what you are good at, what you are not good at, and how to get help with those things to grow your small business. The more you learn and ask for help for what you need, the more you will receive. This helps artists become courageous in making choices for themselves.
Debra Zeleznik will be featured as an expert on the panel discussion at all three of ABI’s upcoming workshops in Hawaii this September. Find out more about this series at Volcano Art Center on the Big Island, Maui, and Oahu, and join us for these exciting events that will help you learn how to transform your own small business!