12 Jul Meet the Entrepreneur: Samantha Leung, Handmade Sam*Made
For Samantha Leung, working with her hands creatively has always been a part of her life. Although she has a Bachelor’s in Law, Politics and Society, she decided to pursue her passion for making things when she learned about the beautiful Scandinavian tradition of building himmeli. Since starting her business, she’s seen a great response not only to her products but to her styling and merchandising as well. Self-identified as a night owl, sometimes Samantha’s work days stretch into the early hours of the morning. But as an entrepreneur on a mission, her hard work is paying off in some pretty big ways.
Tell us a little bit about how your business got started?
I have been a maker my entire life. When I was growing up, my brothers and I were often gifted things like wood burning kits, and chemistry sets, and we would always be in the garage with our dad, working on the car. We even built our own playground sets. And, from there, it’s always been about making things and developing things with our hands. I started silk-screening when I was 12 years old. I got my first job when I was 14, and my friends and I started our own business when we were 16 making custom handmade costumes.
I went to college and graduated with a major in pre-law with five minors, in fields of study including psychology, sociology, art, law and politics. I spent a year teaching English and American culture at a University in China right after college. When I returned I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.
Since I was 7 years old, I wanted to go to law school and wanted to become an attorney. But right after my year off, I asked myself, “Is this what I want for the rest of my life?” And it wasn’t. So, I kept on creating, and learning new skills, and when I discovered himmeli, it was eye-opening because they’re so beautiful and geometric. The story behind them is also just so lovely that it made me want to learn as much as I possibly could. I taught myself how to make them, and it’s been go go go ever since.
So you mentioned the story behind himmeli. Could you tell us a little bit more about them?
Himmeli are normally a geometric structure that Finnish people keep in their dining room during the holidays. They’re made out of straw from the previous harvest season. They believe that the larger the himmeli, the larger the crop will be for the next year. So it’s the idea of using something from the previous season to foreshadow the next season.
What does a normal workday look like for you?
I structure the beginning half of my day, and then the rest of the day I usually leave open for what needs to be done. I’m definitely a night owl, I usually go to sleep around two or three in the morning, and then I wake up between 8 and 10 AM. I start my day off by going through my emails, and responding to everything that’s urgent. And then I will post to social media. After that I take the time to schedule the rest of my day, with meetings or projects that need to be done. Or if I need to build that day, I set up for that.
What are some tools that help you run your business every day?
My favorite online organizational tools are OneNote and OneDrive. These allow me to sync things across my platforms including my cell phone, my iPad, and my computer, so I have everything with me at all times.
How did you find your first customers?
I owe a lot to Etsy. The success rate on Etsy is really low. A really small percentage of the shops on their platform make more than $300 in a calendar year, and that’s because it’s a really crowded marketplace. For the most part, it’s just a matter of standing out from the crowd. I was surprised that my Etsy shop took off, but I’m really fortunate for that.
What would you suggest for others starting businesses like yours?
I would just tell them to come up with an original idea, and just start. It’s going to be messy, and you’re going to mess up, but you will learn from every single experience.
For example, you may not know the shipping rates of an item that’s going to Ireland. But if someone asks you if you can ship to Ireland, you’ll look into it and you’ll figure it out. It’s as simple as that.
What marketing efforts have worked for you?
Instagram is my number one revenue generator, and it is the single platform where I invest the majority of my time. People will say that you need to diversify with using Pinterest, Twitter and Periscope, but it actually depends on what your product is.
Since I have a product-based business, Instagram is great for me because I can show what I’m making, and I can show how to style it, and from that I get a lot of interaction and interest, which is wonderful.
I also vend at artisan markets. I try to find ones that fit with my aesthetic. Renegade Craft Fair has been a really great fit. Craft shows are really good because you get a lot of eyes on you that you normally wouldn’t.
And were there any marketing outlets that you tried that didn’t work for you?
Yes, Snapchat! I didn’t even know where to start. Like do you want to see a picture of my face? Or do you want to see my product or behind the scenes? My engagement on Snapchat is really low because I haven’t honed in on how to use it to my advantage. Right now, I’m deciding whether it is where I need to be, or if it’s something I should just forget about.
Tell us about your team! What is the best part of the people who work with your business?
The only other person in my business right now is my husband, Andy. Not only is he incredibly supportive and absolutely wonderful, but he also went to school and double majored in economics and finance, so he’s also my accountant, now. He also helps me with shipping and everything related to that, as well as simply being there for me.
What inspired you to go in the direction of entrepreneurialism? Was there someone who really encouraged you in that direction?
I just started reading a book called, “Smarter, Faster, Better” and the part that I’m reading is about people who are extremely self-motivated and have a lot of drive. They refer to it as Locus of Control. I haven’t finished the book, so I’m not an expert by any means, but I think I’ve always had a lot of drive and ambition.
What is one thing you wish you knew 1 year ago?
One year ago, I wish I knew the importance of establishing my own website outside of third-party online marketplaces.
A lot of people aren’t aware of all of the transaction fees that are associated with online marketplaces. There’s a 3-10% fee per transaction, which does start to add up. On top of that, when you don’t have your own website you aren’t able to create your own mailing list. Those customers are not your own.
I was on a platform that was very deliberate about separating the maker from the customer, where you never have access to customer email addresses. It’s because those customers aren’t your customers, they’re their customers. And when you have your own website, the customers who visit your website are 100% yours. You can market towards them. And you have this prime demographic of people who are either interested in buying from you or have purchased from you in the past.
So what do you do when you’re not working?
I guess what everyone strives for is a work-life balance, and my husband and I joke around that I work more than anything else. But in my free-time, a good way to make myself take a break from work is to go on trips, vacations and excursions. Since I won’t be in the office, it’s much harder to answer emails, and I won’t be able to build or pack up orders, or anything like that.
Are you involved in any communities or groups specific to your business?
Yes, I am a part of several different Facebook groups and I’ve met a couple of makers through craft shows who I’m now friends with. Shows are really great opportunities to meet other creatives, makers and people who are doing the exact same thing as us. Even if we have completely different products, we’re still answering emails and we’re still dealing with really similar things.
It’s really nice to be able to connect with people who know exactly what you’re going through. And I think that’s what everyone craves. A community of people who can relate to what you’re talking about. So that’s what I’ve found in Facebook groups and Etsy teams. It’s a total game changer for a small business because you have to build a community regardless of what your career is.
What are some of the Facebook groups that you’ve found most useful?
For Facebook groups I love “For Love and Money” with Caitlin Bacher, she is an Instagram and Social Media Strategist. Another one is the Rising Tide Society. They believe that, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” It’s meant to say that if we can help support each other, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a competition. And the last group is the CYL Collective (Craft Your Life Collective) and that was founded by Grace Gully. She is a really a big proponent for supporting women, makers and building a group of people who can help each other.
What is your biggest piece of financial advice for small business owners or coaches like yourself? Resources?
Keep up with your accounting, and have a separate business account, one that is completely separate from your personal finances.
What are some of the greatest things that have come about since you decided to venture out on your own?
Having the self confidence and motivation to start, own, and run a business are not skills that each and every person possesses. Knowing that I am capable of starting, and running a successful company is one of the greatest things that I have been fortunate enough to experience.
In regards to opportunities that have come up, I’ve had a lot of really great collaborations. I have worked with several other creatives and makers, including macrame artists, paper flower makers, and more.
An interior architect and the designer for the California Pizza Kitchen at LAX reached out to me recently and had me make quite a few custom pieces for their renovation.
Another recent opportunity is that a stylist that works with Nate Berkus reached out to me. They are launching a new line of appliances with LG, and they styled the event to launch his new collaboration with a few of my pieces.