If you’re wondering how anyone could possibly grow a small business and make it flourish during the pandemic, ask Ashleigh Kiser. During a year that felt like a nightmare for many of us, the 26-year-old entrepreneur seemingly spun hand-dyed yarn into gold.
Of course, happy endings never come without their fair share of strife ― there are giants to be felled and frogs to be kissed along the way. But just look at Kiser’s numbers during the pandemic:
The founder of Sewrella Yarn, which sells custom batches of hand-dyed yarn in themed colorways that change from month to month, Kiser has grown her monthly sales by 1,400% since February 2020, expanding from a two-person operation in her garage to a six-person (and counting) staff with 2,500 square feet of commercial space just outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. At the beginning of the pandemic, selling 400 skeins of yarn a month overwhelmed her. Now, she’s selling more than 6,000 skeins a month, and the numbers continue to go up.
Also expanding? Her family ― she’s expecting twins this spring, growing her family of three to five.
This level of success and growth makes one wonder ― especially in the midst of COVID-19, when so many businesses have struggled and failed ― what kind of secret sauce she’s using.
Part of her success has to do with the fact that the pandemic has propelled crafters’ idle hands into a creative frenzy, and her product provides a healthy outlet for COVID-19-induced stress and a way to spend ample time at home.
Another factor is Kiser’s business savvy, which is all self-taught. Key among her skills are a meticulous attention to detail and organization (watch her Instagram Stories, where she shares a transparent look at a dizzying number of spreadsheets she utilizes), a flexible business strategy that allows her to shift to meet customer demand, and a drive that makes one wonder when she ever has time to sleep.
And let’s not forget about her actual product, the yarn. It’s a color lover’s dream, the result of impeccable creative vision and skilled execution, and it’s marketed with a strategy that generates customer loyalty. Because Sewrella Yarn releases monthly, limited-edition collections, each release creates a sense of urgency for knitters to grab their favorite colors before they disappear. And color themes like Gilmore Girls (“I Smell Snow” was a popular colorway for Lorelai fans) and The Bon Voyage Collection (inspired by all the summer vacations that never happened this year ― like Fantasyland, inspired by a Disney vacation) keep pulling in new audiences every month.
“I think a lot of people think, ‘Well if I just hustle for six months and I start making money, then it’ll be gravy.’ But the reality is, it’s never gravy.”
– Ashleigh Kiser
Speaking of fantasyland … Despite all Kiser’s creative talent and rapid business growth this year, not all fantasies are what they seem. Her success hasn’t come without its fair share of stress, and Kiser recently spoke with us about the ups and downs of running her business. Below, read about what motivates and challenges her, and what she advises aspiring entrepreneurs who want to start their own small business. TL;DR: “It’s never gravy.”
How did you even get started with your own business?
I started Sewrella as a design blog when I was 21, designing free crochet and knitting projects. When that started doing really well, I got to the point where my hobby ― crocheting and knitting ― started to feel like a job, and I wanted a hobby again. So I researched yarn dyeing, fell in love with it and quickly found I could dye yarn a lot faster than I could use it. So around 2018, I started selling it as a side gig. That slowly grew into a hand-dyed yarn business that’s now called Sewrella Yarn, and the business steadily grew.
How much training do you have in either yarn dyeing or in business?
No training whatsoever ― I never expected to be doing all this as a job. I was in college to become an English teacher because it seemed like a dependable, normal, steady job, and this was something fun on the side. But I was bored in college and wanted to turn my hobby into something else, and I knew people could make money blogging. That world of entrepreneurship, but at home on a small scale, seemed really intriguing to me. I thought I would go for it, and never imagined I’d be where I am now, on this scale.
You have a unique strategy of releasing themed collections every month, and switching it up from month to month. Explain why that works for you, because it sounds like a lot of work to totally switch gears every 30 days or so.
I wish I had a great business answer for that, but really I just get bored. But customers really enjoy that surprise, the fact that there’s always something around the corner that they haven’t seen before. It helps people stick around, because even if the thing I launched this month wasn’t their favorite, they had to know what was coming next. It does create a lot more work for me and my team, and some days it’s very overwhelming to do things that way, but at the same time, whenever I have a new idea, there’s so much excitement for it that I would never want to squash that and do the same thing every time. And in terms of profitability, it does create a sense of urgency that there’s no guarantee it’s ever going to come back, so there’s kind of that “get it before it’s gone” kind of mentality.
What gave you the confidence that you could afford to grow into the commercial space you purchased over the summer?
I really didn’t have a choice. We were dyeing all our yarn in our garage, which is brutal in the summer in North Carolina, and processing everything (winding, packaging) everything in a spare bedroom upstairs. We were taking the yarn inside, going upstairs to wind it, going back downstairs to dye it, back upstairs to dry it and package it, back downstairs to take it to the post office. It was really dysfunctional and that system was fine for a long time because we were doing maybe 100 orders in a month, but getting to 500 orders in a month wasn’t working. I was watching the growth month over month, and it was consistent enough that if we continued to grow there’d be no way we could continue at home. So I kind of took a leap of faith and started looking for an office space and we wound up taking the first one I looked at, because it fit our needs perfectly. We jumped at it and I’m really glad we did because we signed the lease on the office space and we launched a collection a week or two later, and we doubled our sales from the month before.
Why do you think this level of growth happened during the pandemic?
People had been home because of the pandemic and it wasn’t looking like it would be over anytime soon, so I think people started to settle in and invest in some luxury things they wouldn’t have otherwise. They were like, “Well, I might as well splurge on yarn because I can’t go on summer vacation or do these other things I would normally do,” and so I think they allocated some of that budget and we saw that continue to snowball throughout the year.
“There’s been a time or two when the sales blew my expectations out of the water. It’s a wonderful feeling, but it’s also a crushing amount of pressure.”
– Ashleigh Kiser
How do you deal with the uncertainty of running a small business?
I would love to say that I could forecast into the future, but I never would’ve been able to forecast what happened this year. But I try to plan as best I can and stay as organized as I can, because there are so many variables that are outside of my control. I’m usually able to anticipate a ballpark estimate of what we can expect for a collection, but there’s been a time or two when the sales blew my expectations out of the water. It’s a wonderful feeling, but it’s also a crushing amount of pressure, because when you have double the number of customers expecting amazing results from you than you’re prepared for, it’s very exciting, but at the same time there’s this panic of, “How are we going to get that done?”
If someone’s considering opening a small business, what are some of the major “cons” that go your pro/con list?
You have to be OK with working every moment you’re awake. That sounds dramatic, but you have to be OK with the fact that it’s going to run your life, to a certain degree. Especially once it gets to a point where it is successful and making you a living, you don’t just get to that point and coast. You have to keep hustling, even after it’s gotten successful. I think a lot of people think, “Well if I just hustle for six months and I start making money, then it’ll be gravy.” But the reality is, it’s never gravy.
“I’m always looking over my shoulder worried it’s all going to come crashing down. But I think that’s part of an entrepreneurial mindset, you have to have that hunger and drive to keep going and pushing the boundaries.”
– Ashleigh Kiser
You’re never gonna get to that point or your business is gonna slow down because someone hungrier is gonna come along behind you. And I think that’s a misconception with small business also, is that it looks really fun and simple and it looks like a Hallmark movie ― and sometimes it is, because I’d rather be doing this than most other jobs on the planet ― but at the same time, I work seven days a week, 365 days a year. There’s never a moment when I’m not thinking about work or working on work.
So do you EVER get to a point where you feel comfortable, financially?
It definitely feels like a constant hustle, but since I’ve gotten to this point I do have a little more security in that I feel like I can sleep at night and my business probably won’t go under when I’m not looking. We shut down the office for the whole week of Christmas, which I’ve never done, so this was unprecedented for me. It took a lot of convincing from my family to get me to do that, because it’s just not in my nature to take time off and relax. Part of that comes from a place of, “What will happen when I’m gone? What will happen if I don’t worry about the sustainability of this business?” I’m always looking over my shoulder worried it’s all going to come crashing down. But I think that’s part of an entrepreneurial mindset, you have to have that hunger and drive to keep going and pushing the boundaries, otherwise it could slow down.
And there are difficult customers, right?
Yeah, it sucks. Because I’m creating something that is an expression of myself and my mind, it cuts very deep when people get upset with me about anything, even if it’s something I can’t control. I’ve had a lot of issues with shipping, especially because of the pandemic, during the holiday season. There’ve been a lot of customers upset about that, which is understandable ― when you buy something, you don’t want it to get lost, and I don’t want it to get lost either! I put so much work into making the thing! It’s really difficult to deal with, because you take everything so personally. Imagine if you baked a pie for your neighbor and you put all this love and work into it, and you bring it next door and they just push it in your face. That’s exactly what it feels like.
So what are some of the positives that make it all worth it?
For every moment of stress or difficult interaction with a customer, there are 10,000 people or moments of support that come along. I’d say 99% of my day and my interactions with customers and friends, they’re all just the most supportive, loving people. It’s crazy to think of how many thousands of people have bought our yarn. At the end of the day, it’s just yarn ― we’re not making medicine or something people need to survive ― but people treat it like it’s the most important thing to them. Of all the things you could have in the world, you want the thing that I made, and that just blows my mind. It makes it really easy to keep going.
What’s more important: being talented and having a creative product? Or being a good business person?
I don’t think you can have a successful business without having a big dose of each one. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t have the drive and hustle to get it out there in front of people, it’s never going to go anywhere. The flipside of that is, you can have all the hustle in the world, but if you don’t have an eye for color and a creative process that creates great results, then it may not matter how many eyes are looking at you if you don’t have something special for you to look at.
What’s your advice for anyone looking to start a small business right now?
I think the key to starting a small business of any kind is finding a unique way to do it. If all you do is look at another business and say, “I could do that, that looks fun,” and don’t carry the thought any further, it’s never really going to go anywhere. You have to really hone your craft and focus on what you can do differently, and how you can add a dose of yourself into your business. Because that’s really what people gravitate to, is that sense that they’re supporting an individual. A lot of people focus so hard on the product itself, which is very important, but they completely ignore that people want to support a family, an individual, a team, and they want to know the person behind it and see you in the product.
I think a lot of people start small businesses not intending to copycat another business, but it sometimes comes off that way because we don’t put enough thought into how you can make this YOUR business. I think if there was more focus on that, there’d be more success with small businesses getting off the ground and really becoming full-time jobs for people.