Each month we showcase a different entrepreneur whose small business we’ve been following.
These are entrepreneurs that stand out to us, are doing things truly authentic, and building all around awesome brands.
Tony Mormino, the owner of Sew Grown and I met through a Facebook group all about Shopify stores. I had posted regarding the phenomenon of dropshipping and how it seemed like fewer and fewer stores were actually making their own products anymore.
This comment took off and soon hundreds of makers and entrepreneurs came out from the shadows and declared their pride for selling items they made. I was thrilled to see so much support and such a vibrant community.
The struggles faced by online makers and sellers are entirely unique and vastly different than those of dropshippers or wholesalers. They simply didn’t have a place to chat about their business questions. In came Tony who quickly had a new Facebook group created just for Shopify Makers.
Tony’s enthusiasm and his level of engagement on social media was incredibly impressive so I checked out his site and was wowed by their story! Handmade products, created in the USA, and the business is run by a husband and wife team, how cool is that?
Inspired by their story, I wanted to learn more about Sew Grown and their journey.
Interview with Tony for Sew Grown
Courtney: Hey Tony! So you and your wife run this business, how long have you been creating products?
Tony: Probably 6 years, it’s a little more than that. Steph (Tony’s wife) was making products by hand. She’s a very good seamstress and has a real good sense of style. She would make a couple of purses to sell to her friends, make a few more and sell them to her friends. At the same time, I was getting burned out on my career, and I was looking for something to do that was completely 100% just me and my wife.
So I was looking at selling online, and selling products online is very, very challenging if you don’t have something unique that people are excited about. So I asked Steph if she’d put the purses online so we did, and that’s kind of how it started.
Courtney: Had you worked in ecommerce previously at all?
Tony: I knew nothing about selling online, I think I had bought some stuff on Amazon. I wasn’t on Facebook, wasn’t on Instagram, I didn’t even know what Instagram was!
I was talking to a guy who, to me, was an online guru because I didn’t know anything. He said “You should start a blog. That’s where the money is right now.” and I said, “Oh Okay. That sounds great!” and I had to go home and Google “What is a blog” I had no idea. I was totally green.
My degree is in engineering, when I came out of college I went into commercial air conditioner sales as my career and I did really well. So I knew absolutely nothing about the ecommerce world at all. I was good at sales, I knew what it took to build relationships, and that is really the same thing you’re doing online you’re just doing it digitally instead of in person.
Courtney: That definitely makes sense that those skills were perfectly transferable to online. So have you guys always been Sew Grown or has the business changed at all during those 6 years?
Tony: No, we’ve always been Sew Grown. The products have changed, product creation is an iterative process. What we think will work really well may work terribly. And we may think, “Well no one’s going to want this” and then we try it and it’s got a good reaction. So the products have evolved based on customer feedback, material availability, cost savings, adding features, that sort of thing.
Courtney: Where did the name Sew Grown come from?
Tony: I’m not really sure. It came from my wife, she likes sewing. Our tagline is Create, Grow, Inspire. So she’s growing as a person and that’s what it represents.
There’s something about sewing which has this connotation of taking it back to a different time, a simpler time. That falls in line with our product.
Even after 5-6 years though we still struggle with who we are as a brand, and I think that’s pretty common. Our brand is quality products of a timeless throwback. Quality products that your grandma used to make. Stuff that will last, not cheap from overseas.
Our products are hand made in the USA, we pick and source all the materials, my wife makes all the products first by hand, we find out what works and what doesn’t work, then we hire people to make them.
Courtney: You can definitely tell that those traditional roots of how you’re sourcing and creating your products is something that’s important to your brand. It’s very apparent on your site!
Tony: Yeah, we have a passion for quality products. We started out knowing we wanted to be a quality product company. We just can’t stand cheap products that don’t have a purpose. So quality has always been our mission and our purpose.
We’ve tried to get products made in China originally because it is so hard to get products made in the USA. Even if you can find somebody, the pricing is triple what it is, so then you have the responsibility of the company to get the product in front of the right customer that can afford that type of product. It’s a real big challenge.
So we’ve defaulted to where we are now, because we tried the overseas thing, we couldn’t get the quality we wanted and we wanted more control. So we’re back to what we tried originally which is getting them made in the USA. We’ve finally found someone who can make them, but they’re expensive.
We’re at a crossroads with our products right now. We had to increase our pricing, and our margins are not that great. It’s a challenge.
For anyone who’s listening and starting a made in the USA/ handmade product type company then you’re going to experience that margins are not great. You still have the challenges of getting the products in front of the right customer, which costs money. If a purse is $20 to get made, and it costs $20 to show it to somebody, and it’s another $10 for shipping and packing and all this other stuff. You’ll have to sell it for $80-$100.
That doesn’t even include all the other costs of running a business. General rule of thumb is if you’re selling something for $100 you better not be spending more than $20 for it, and that’s just not going to happen if you’re a made in the USA/ handmade business.
Courtney: It’s true, and that’s sort of the hidden underbelly of making quality products. The reality of making them and trying to find the balance of quality and affordability is a difficult challenge for small companies.
Tony: It’s a huge challenge, and that’s why, unfortunately, a lot of companies don’t last. It’s really really hard even if you’re not making the products in the USA. To start a company and make it work and make it profitable is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m continuously surprised at how hard it is. Every time we think we’re on the right track something happens that makes us have to pivot.
Courtney: Well it seems like your audience on social media is quite large for a small company, that’s exciting! Could you talk a little bit about how you were able to build that nice loyal community you’ve got on Instagram and Facebook?
Tony: So the rule with online is if you want to be seen by people you have to pay. We aren’t seeing a lot of organic growth right now. We did at the beginning, but you get to a point where you have 5,000-6,000 followers, then you’ve got to really think. You’ve got all your low hanging fruit, the people that love your stuff, and buy whatever you make. But to grow further from that, you’ve got to pay. If you’re doing it the right way, you can grow your audience and break even or make a profit. People grow their audience but make zero money.
You can have 5,000 followers and be bringing in 6 figures. You can have 100,000 followers and be making nothing. So the amount of followers is only a good indicator that you’ve got something special, but the quality of your followers is much more important.
We don’t do a lot of organic though, you should if you have the time. Do videos, do lives, talk about your mission, engage with people. I’m not the face of the company, my wife is, and she homeschools the kids, so it’s tough to find time.
Courtney: It’s true! Organic can be time consuming but it is great for businesses that are getting started. To your point about followers, I know this is something a lot of new entrepreneurs feel self conscious about. It’s easy to get caught up in those follower counts and compare. But that number in no way corresponds to actual paying customers so it doesn’t even serve you or your business.
Tony: It’s very hard. You know even after 5-6 years we still struggle with our brand identity. We’re really associated with the essential oil market, but we’re thinking of branching out into the women’s fashion market, but it’s harder to stand out in those niches.
Selling online is hard, it takes a long time, it’s a lot of work but the good news is that you can do it. Anyone can do it. I’m a 48 year old engineer air conditioning background and we were able to do it. It’s not rocket science. It just depends on what your pain threshold is and are you willing to deal with the fear, and the stress and be willing to overcome it, that’s really what separates it.
I was recently talking to someone who’s way more successful online than we are, and I asked her. “What separates you from the people who failed?” and she said, “I just didn’t stop. I’m not special, I just didn’t stop. If I got my head kicked in, I woke up the next day and just kept going. That’s all that separated me.” I really look at it that way too.
Courtney: It’s true. Perseverance, and determination and a little bit of faith go a long way. I love that you have a community of people that are sharing that information and helping each other grow.
Tony: I’m so surprised, there have been so many people that have helped me for no reason! People are really willing to help I’ve noticed. If you’re really motivated to be an entrepreneur, it’s a good time to because you can do it in your spare time. Now, don’t quit your job, unless you’re ready and you’ve been doing it for a few years or have some stockpile of cash. I think that puts too much stress on the business. In the beginning, new business is a very fragile thing. In my opinion, you have to take your time, reiterate and try new things, and it’s hard to do that if you’re trying to pay your rent or make your mortgage. You’re probably not going to make money the first few years.
These gurus on Facebook, standing in front of Lamborghinis, saying “Buy my course”. That’s all B.S., that’s not how it works. All it does is make people feel guilty. It just doesn’t work like that. To make money you have to bring value to people.
Courtney: Oh man! It’s so unfortunate that that’s everywhere right now. It’s so discouraging because it’s hard not to compare but it’s completely unrealistic. It really doesn’t happen like that. I prefer to run businesses that are something you’re morally proud of, and can always stand behind down the line.
Tony: I agree, I just always try to tell people the truth. Sometimes I feel like I’m getting too negative on it or being discouraging. I just want people to know that it’s not easy. If you’ve got the expectation going in that it’s not easy, and you can just have some kind of growth like 1 follower a day, whatever the little thing is to get you through to the next day.
I remember when we started, and we got our first sale, we were over the moon! We made $35 but we were so proud. I had been selling $100K-$300k air conditioning jobs but I would get more satisfaction selling one of those online. There’s a lot of beauty in selling something you’ve created and are proud of. It’s a magical and very positive thing. To create it is hard, and to keep it going is harder, it’s a lot of stress but what you get back from having your own thing makes it worth it.
Go check out Sew Grown, they’re doing some really awesome things and make great products. If you’re into essential oils, beautifully crafted purses, or handmade accessories we know you’ll love it.
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