Running a small online retail business in 2022 can sometimes feel like a never ending game of keepy-uppy - but starting a small business from scratch is like standing at the bottom of Everest with no hiking equipment, just shouting "Well what the hell now?" into the ether.
I've been self employed for around 6 years now, but I've only run Until Dawn for the last 3 and it wasn't until April 2020 that I really started taking it seriously. From there I launched myself into a journey of learning all things DIY Small Biz. From content creation, decent DIY photography and brand values to e-mail marketing and building my own website, I have created everything you see when you visit Until Dawn online or on social media myself - and it's been a wild ride.
These are just a handful of the tools which I use, from education to marketing, that have enabled me to smoothly and easily create professional branding and a cohesive online presence without having to pay hundreds of pounds to graphic designers - a luxury I'd love but haven't been able to afford so far in my journey.
Plus, I've included a few extras which help me keep my mind healthy whilst juggling the stresses of juggling multiple business endeavours and responsibilities.
If you'd like to find out what I swear by for my business, read on...
Education is a huge part of running your business solo - none of us just happen to know how to write email newsletters, design branding or build a website. It takes hours and hours of dedicated learning for the pros, and as a DIY-er, it's no different. Taking on your own website design and branding is no easy task but it's absolutely not impossible, and these tools hugely helped me in learning how to do what I needed to...
1. Skillshare - A user generated learning platform.
Skillshare was a website I'd heard advertised on podcasts time and time again, and it took a lockdown before I decided to look into it. It's essentially a platform where users can create courses in their specialty, and other uses can reap the benefits from their knowledge and expertise. There's tonnes of courses from mindfulness, to languages, to graphic design - so there's a lot to be gained from this service.
However, I used it primarily to boost my business - I was desperate to learn how to use social media, design, and marketing to create a more streamlined, successful profitable business - and thanks to Skillshare, that's exactly what I did.
My favourite classes were by Cat Coquilette - her social media marketing course opened my eyes to a whole new world of advertising and marketing opportunities using the free social apps on my phone. There's also tonnes of amazing graphic design courses - I definitely encourage you to head on there and have a play on the free trial...
If you'd like to get a free month on Skillshare, click here! For transparency, I won't get any money from you doing this, but if you decide to stick with it, I'll get a free month once you've paid for your first month.
2. YouTube - The Internet Video Stalwart
If you're anything like me, you'll know that YouTube is often more of a source of distraction than productivity, anyone who's found themselves 18 videos into abandoned house tours will know exactly what I mean....
But I digress - much like Skillshare, YouTube is a platform where there is endless user generated content, and sure, much of it is total garbage, but there are also tonnes of channels where knowledgeable and experienced people share advice, tutorials, and methods in almost any area. When I first started attempting flat lay photography, YouTube was my first port of call - there are hundreds of brilliant "iPhone Photography" and "Flatlay Photography" videos to choose from.
To avoid being sucked into the wormhole of pointless, mindless YouTubing, I recommend writing a list of what you want to learn and referring back to it. This will help you stay on track and actually get some amazing knowledge out of it.
I also massively recommend Social Media as an education tool - but I'm going to save this for another blog on another day...
Photography was one of the hardest parts for me - despite studying art in college and loving other photographers work, it's just not something I ever understood (and I still don't, if I'm honest). So, without investing hundreds of pounds into paying a photographer (a story for another day), or even more into buying a snazzy camera, what's a girl to do...?
3. iPhone Camera & Editor - Free, built in, ready to go!
Use what she's already got, of course!
I always make sure I upgrade to the newest iPhone I can afford at the end of each contract or when my last phone dies. I love being able to take pretty holiday pictures and insta snaps - and this hugely benefitted me when I started taking my business more seriously. Despite only having an iPhone 8 at the time, the camera was decent enough that with the right lighting and a steady hand, I could take decent photos that had good clarity.
I then used the iPhone photo editor that's simply built into my phone to edit the pictures to get them in tune with the aesthetic my brand is built around. I typically turn up with warmth and vibrancy slightly, and occasionally I'll play with brightness if the light isn't quite on my side. With a little help from YouTube and a lot of fiddling around, I soon got into a rhythm, and DIY photography became a lot, lot easier.
Branding, colours, and aesthetics set your brand apart from the rest before people have even seen what you have to offer them. From the nuanced shades of the colours you use, to font options, graphic designs and carefully selected edits on your photos. This is one of the biggest things I'm complimented on when people chat to me about my marketing, website, and social media prescence, and as a creative person I can happily say it was by far the easiest part thanks to...
4. Canva - Affordable, accessible graphic design at your fingertips.
Canva is a program accessible by phone application, web browser or on your tablet. It has both free and paid options, saves all your designs as you work in the platform, and has tonnes of options for various design sizes, choices and templates.
I personally pay for the Pro tier of Canva - not only does it enable me to use a wider selection of fonts and graphics, but it also allows me to use enhanced photo editing tools, resize designs into multiple formats (from a Facebook post to Pin to Instagram story, for example), plus, my favourite, I can store a Brand Kit on there to make designing on-brand graphics super quick and easy.
I plan on doing a post about the essentials of DIY designing a brand and branding kit soon - but instead of waiting for that, I urge you to head over to Canva, sign up to their free version, and have a play! It's super fun and there's a world of graphic design possibilities on there.
5. ProCreate - Free and powerful illustration and design software.
After 18 months of using Canva and asking friends for help with design, I was super excited to invest in an iPad and download Canva. This free drawing application on tablets opened up so many new opportunities for me when it not only came to graphic design, but designing new products.
As a natural creative and born doodler, I have really loved getting to grips with turning my own hand drawn designs into graphics, and seeing them come together in a more professional way. I'm still a long way to being a pro, but being able to use this has totally changed the way I create and I'm so excited over the next year to design more collections using this tool.
One the the hardest parts of DIY business - bringing your product to the market and advertising and marketing it in a professional, fitting, and efficient way. It's a total minefield and whilst I love using social media, it's certainly not the be all and end all of marketing - there's so, so much more to it and it's an ever changing world, so it's one I go back to often to learn more about.
However, these are the tools which I use to enhance my basic marketing techniques and reach as many customers as I can in a profitable, easy, accesible and efficient manner.
6. MailChimp - The OG of email marketing brilliance.
There's so, so many email marketing platforms on the market, and so many give you a tonne of different benefits - but I've been using MailChimp for the last few years and, for what I need at the moment, it works great.
I love that it syncs with the emails I have collected through my website, and that it also syncs with my product collections and discounts making it easier for my customers to shop through the emails. The Drag'n'Drop design format makes putting together a stylish and to the point email super easy, and it's phone app is super easy to use to track how my emails are doing.
I use the free option currently and I love it - if you're a business that heavily relies on email marketing and newsletters, it may benefit you to choose one of the higher paid tiers, but if you're just sending the odd email newsletter, you can't beat MailChimp as a free service. I really like that it gives me opening and bouncing stats, I can see clearly how much was made from each campaign and who unsubscribes. It gives me a lot of data back which is incredibly useful.
7. Instagram - A visual social media platform with over 30 million users.
Of all the social media platforms, Instagram is my favourite. As a visual person with a design and visual based retail business, the focus on photo and video content on this application makes it a clear winner - perhaps with Pinterest in close second!
I love that I can post in real time to Instagram and speak to my customers directly. I personally use my feed (or my 'grid') as a mini blog to talk about style, values, and, well, whatever pops into my head. But my stories are a great glimpse behind my brand and the planning and creating that goes into everything I do - and I often manage to talk to likeminded souls and potential customers on there, and manage to make some amazing, organic sales and contacts through just being active.
It also provides great insights and analytics which are super helpful in working out the kind of content that provides value and gains engagement, but also what times and days your followers are engaging and when they're clicking through to make a purchase. This kind of data is invaluable and makes planning content strategies more accurate and effective.
However you decide to use Instagram, use it consistently and allow it to slot into your working day or week naturally. If you're forcing yourself to use it, it'll come through in your work and people won't see the passion behind the brand.
Relax, be yourself, and sell your brand how you'd like to be sold to - authentic, raw and honest.
8. Business Suite - A great way to track and manage your social media pages.
If you don't know, Business Suite is a phone app that is owned by Facebook - it essentially merges together your Facebook and Instagram marketing in one app. All your messages and comments from both platforms can be managed there, and it makes it super easy to access all of this - including paid ads and sponsored posts - in one simple application.
I don't use this as much as I could, as I don't use Facebook much for myself or the business, but it does make streamlining my posts and my engagement so much easier and it stops me missing messages that come through on Facebook. However, if your target audience is hanging out on Facebook more than Instagram, this app will be the one for you - with tonnes of great features including Facebook Page Management and Facebook Shopping built right in, it's an essential for small businesses and their marketing.
The boring stuff - yep, I got you all excited with the fun stuff that involves making stuff pretty and slowly lured you into the boring pits of business hell...
Ok, that's kind of an exaggeration, but whilst the most boring, this stuff is super essential as it's the bit that actually makes your business a business - money. And getting all these bits right will not only make doing your taxes and records easier, but it'll make the day to day running of your business easier and it'll look far more professional to your clients and customers...
9. Shopify - A website host and builder made specifically for online retail and e-commerce
There are quite honestly a BUTTLOAD of website hosting platforms out there, some cheaper, some more expensive, some easier, some much more technically advanced.
I like to think Shopify comes in somewhere in the middle - it costs around $30 a month, and it makes all the back end stuff super easy, from taking payments to building the actual physical website. It has built in blog options (yep, I'm tapping this away on Shopify right now), analytics to see how your page is performing, and great tutorials and customer services.
It also comes with a whole host of paid apps to streamline your users shopping experiences and make your life a little easier - I don't personally pay for any extras, but there's some amazing options to help with marketing, finances and user experience.
They offer a free 2 week trial, so you can head on and start building your dream website and get a feel for the platform before handing over your hard earned cash.
10. SumUp - Cheap and easy way to take in-person card payments for your business
SumUp doesn't really make any difference if you only plan to sell online, but if you plan to take your business to trade shows, markets, or pop-ups, this makes in-person selling a bazillion times easier!
It's a super cheap card reader which works off your phone - you just type the amount you want to charge into the app, it dings to the card reader, and the customer can do the rest. It then tots up everything you've taken at the end of the day and after a couple of days it pings it across into your account - taking all the hard work out of taking card payments during real life events.
If you'd like to buy a SumUp, there's a link here which will get you a little money off - but for transparency, it'll also pay me £10 for referring you. Thank you!
11. Tide - Free and easy business banking
When I first started working for myself, I sort of...slid, slowly, like I was sliding down a mudbank, into Self Employment. It started gently and gradually and I kind of didn't mean at the time for it to become *~*a thing*~* at all even slightly...
...but before I knew it, I was working for myself for 60 hours a week and still using my personal bank account. Which, in all honesty, was fine until I opened a second business: Until Dawn. And then things got a whole lot more complicated.
Around 6 months ago I realised my finances were a total mess so I took the step to open a business bank account. I did a little research on different providers and many only had paid schemes, which I wasn't too keen on as I still wasn't making much profit and it would knock into the small amount I was managing to make!
After a little research I found Tide and they have been great. Set up was incredibly easy, everything is explained in the app and I haven't had any problems with them at all. Of course, everyone's business needs are different, but if you want a basic, free, business current account, I can totally recommend Tide for making it easy and idiot-proof!
Mental Health & Small Business
That's our 11 all tied up - but I really wanted to take a moment for the things that help me manage my mental health and life in general. Most of us who run small businesses, "side hustles" or have more than one income stream struggle to separate work, life, and protect our minds from burnout. The balancing act can be hard, especially as no two weeks are ever the same.
So I really thought I'd add in a few things that have hugely helped me as a little bonus - they aren't massive things, they aren't going to cost the Earth, they might not work for you and they might be something you already do or use. But I thought it was worth throwing it in anyway...
A Weekly Planner - an essential for preventing overwhelm
I use this super cute planner from the brilliant Jessica Sharville - but you can find similar weekly planners all over the place. Being able to word vomit out onto a page and separate all my tasks into the days of the week helps stop me trying to cram a bazillion tasks into one day, and enables me to work out sensible timings and stop the worry of the never ending To Do List.
Personally I like to write out a list of the need-to-dos, the booked-in-can't-change tasks, and the flexible-do-it-whenevers, and then plot accordingly. It's always on my desk in eyeshot so it helps me manage my time on a daily basis and I usually have next weeks plan on the go at the same time.
Lists - as far as the eye can see...
I write a lot of lists. I have different notebooks for different kind of lists. And I have At-A-Glance lists all over the wall above my desks. I have checklists for everything to include in a blog or social media posts so I can glance back over before I publish them. I have lists of vintage products I want to source so I can keep an eye out for them. I even have lists of the lengths of each necklace chain so if I need to rewrite copy or reply to a customer query, it's right there.
Lists can feel overwhelming, so by breaking them up into categories it keeps everything manageable. I have a few different notebooks for lists and plans, which totally help keep things calm and organised:
- Content ideas lists - whenever I come up with an idea for some good content, it goes on the list. When I've completed it, I highlight it. Keeps a good bank of things to witter about, with almost no effort needed.
- Shopping lists - I have two. My own, personal shopping list of general stuff (new socks, milk, loo cleaner...) and a business one (staples, a new printer, fabric dye, new sewing machine needles). If I think of anything, big or small, that I need, it goes on the list. At the end of the month, I can sort it all out, see what I still need, and see if there's the cash to invest.
- Calendar and dates - I struggle with managing time, so by having a wallplanner, calendar and lists of important dates as well as a diary, it helps stop me missing important things and it keeps me on the ball.
These are just some of the lists I have - but it's work working out, what things do I ruminate on, what do I need to get out of my head? If there's something you find yourself worrying about in your own time, get a piece of paper or a notebook and start writing it down. Keep it where you'll work on those things, and when you go back to work it's all right there for you.
Headspace/Mindfullness - when your brain is your business, it pays to look after it.
I discovered guided meditation and mindfullness exercises in 2020 when it felt like the world was falling apart - and it changed my life.
That's super dramatic, I know, but it has helped in so many ways. I started just using YouTube guided meditations but I ended up treating myself to the Headspace app and it's really helped my mental health. By allowing myself time to really calm down when I'm feeling anxious or stressed, I now manage these emotions much better and I can pinpoint what's triggering me and work on it.
Anyone who's spinning a few plates will know the trouble of a busy mind before bed - I used to often spend hours tossing and turning before sleep would envelop me in it's dark and cosy cloak. I found a combination of isochronic tonal music, calming sleep stories, guided meditations and mindfullness exercises meant I could fall asleep calmly and soundly without the stress of a busy mind.
I also love using the playlists to work to - sometimes when I'm working I listen to podcasts but if I'm planning blogs or writing copy, instrumental music helps me focus - and there's some lovely, calming instrumental music to help you focus on the Headspace playlists.
There's loads of apps, videos, playlists and books on the matter, but I hugely recommend trying a few different ones before you commit to any paid memberships. I promise, looking after your mind will help your business so, so much.
If you've got to the end of this mammoth list - well done! I really hope there's something here that you've found helpful, or that's inspired you to work in a slightly different way for the better.
I'd love to hear if any of these have helped you or if there's anything you swear by for your business - drop me a line on Instagram and let's chat!
If this has helped you and you'd like to say a little thank you, you can Buy Me a Coffee if you follow this link. As a small business and content creator, a little token of gratitude goes a long way and helps enable me to keep creating more articles and blogs just like this one.