Owning a handmade business can be a wild ride. Just ask Angela Smith, owner and creative director of the Houston, Texas-based tool and supply business Purl & Loop.
In July, Angela Smith was celebrating the patent notification she received for one of her portable loom designs. Then in August, she was riding out Hurricane Harvey with her staff and experiencing a bit of survivor’s guilt that the business and all their homes were spared.
“We all feel guilt for being OK while so many are suffering,” Smith said during the aftermath of the storm that hit weeks after she was initially interviewed for this article. “It was hard to fight the urge to go physically help versus run Purl & Loop. However, it is important to my staff that they have a means of paying their rent, mortgage, car payment, tuition and so on. If they were good and stable, they would be in a position to help their extended family, neighbors and friends.” Smith focused on getting back to work and keeping the business operating so her employees would continue to be paid. “But it is still hard to do when we see so much suffering all around us,” she said.
Smith has an MBA from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, a strong business sense and the means to grow her business that sells a variety of laser cut weaving looms. The 46-year-old recently got a patent for her Swatch Maker 3-in-1 Weaving Loom that allows weavers to weave side by side swatches with 8, 10 on 12 ends per inch on one portable loom.
This versatile loom was created at the request of weaver Liz Gipson, who was working on a book project and looking for a tool to help her design faster. When Gipson made the request in August 2015, Smith admits she wasn’t excited about the idea initially. “Ironically, I almost responded right back to say, ‘No, I’m not doing custom work,’” Smith recalled.
But Smith had just listened to the audiobook, Shatner Rules: Your Guide to Understanding the Shatnerverse and the World at Large, by William Shatner. The book was not a title she requested, but it was sent to her by her audiobook subscription service so she gave it a listen and was inspired by one of the themes that emphasizes the importance of saying yes. Smith said the book encouraged her to engage with Gipson and work to create the loom she was requesting.
“I thought, ‘Let’s see what happens,’ and I called her back,” Smith said. “And then suddenly, about 20 minutes into the conversation I could picture the layout of the product and how I could do it.”
Smith sketched it out and started prototyping. For the next couple of months, she was sending prototypes back and forth with Gipson. “I pretty much knew I was going to do a patent the minute I created it in my head.” She filed for a patent in spring 2016 and received notification that she received approval in July 2017.
“I kind of just had this desire to say I owned a patent,” Smith explained. “I wanted to be a patent owner, an inventor. Seeing that word on the document that I got from (my) attorney: ‘Inventor Angela Smith’—it feels really cool to be an inventor.”
But registering her design wasn’t cheap with all the filing and legal fees, totaling roughly $30,000. Meanwhile, the loom retails for $49. “Obviously, I don’t know that I would do it again,” she said regarding the expense of it. “Unless I come up with this really cool invention, I don’t think I’d go through that process again.”
Smith said she sought patent protection because the Swatch Maker 3-in-1 is a very specific tool and she considers the design a piece of intellectual property that she could potentially license to a manufacturer and distribute to a larger market.
Even though Smith invested a lot to protect the design, she is generous with her weaving project instructions. She distributes them to her retail customers for free and allows them to use the instructions in weaving classes or however they see fit. She also sends shop owners extra loom components so they have stock on hand to handle customer service issues in a timely fashion.
With a successful line of laser-cut portable looms, Purl & Loop has grown a great deal since Smith filed business paperwork in 2011. At the time, Purl & Loop wasn’t much more than an officially registered LLC with a loose plan that Smith thought would come to life as a brick and mortar yarn shop. Smith was working as a successful real estate agent during the day when she re-evaluated her career choice after being recognized as one of the top sellers in her office during the first quarter of 2011.
“I realized, ‘Wait a minute, that was a lot of working weekends, to be recognized,’” reflecting on the personal time she sacrificed to be a top seller. That’s when Smith said she became very focused on buying a creative business or creating one of her own. She tried to buy a little yarn shop in Houston and tried to open one of her own, too, but neither option panned out. A businesswoman with an appreciation for the handmade community, Smith soon learned that the craft universe had other plans for her.
Instead of opening a business in a physical retail space, Smith decided to set up an online craft supply retail space working from a card table set up in her home studio that doubled as a guest room. “It was just me and two cats and two dogs,” she said about the first group she shared her workspace with.
Smith started buying yarn and kits from wholesalers to sell in her online shop. In 2013, she got her hands on a weaving loom at a trade show. She had never woven before, but the product inspired her and she started buying handmade looms to resell under her company’s name. However, the looms were only available in small batches and she was unable to oversee production—she often had to deal with having her logo applied in wonky ways. In addition, the cost of the loom left her little room to make them available at a reasonable price for wholesale customers.
About this time, Smith said her husband—who was eager to help her move her growing business out of their house—set up an appointment for her to check out a studio space. The studio worked out and Smith moved in, only to discover a laser cutting business operating down the hall that offered classes. Learning about laser cutting led Smith to a lightbulb moment when she realized she could laser cut looms for a fraction of the cost required to purchase the handcrafted looms she had been selling previously.
“It was life-changing,” said Smith, who left her job in real estate to run her business full-time. “When we started with the laser, it opened a whole different world.”
She took a loom sample to a trade show, and a retailer offered to buy 100 if she could put their logo on it. Smith filled the order and the shop sold out in two days. At first, Smith rented time on the laser down the hall, but realized as soon as the Swatch Maker 3-in-1 was released that she needed more time than the laser company could give her. So, she moved into a bigger studio space and invested in a new laser, complete with an environmentally-friendly air filtration system.
“It’s like buying a Honda Accord and having a car payment,” she said about financing the purchase of a new laser cutter. The good news for Smith is that the new laser has led to increased sales. “The minute we did that, the business grew,” she said.
Purl & Loop started out as a one-woman show, but Smith quickly realized she was going to need some help. She initially hired an employee for about five hours a week to help her glue pieces of the looms. Soon his hours expanded and she grew the staff to six part-time employees who help her cut out loom pieces, sand, glue, and fulfill orders.
But building her business has not been a straight path to success. A few years ago, she recalls experiencing a low point and questioning whether she was on the right track. “When I was at a low, it was the quilters who brought me out of that,” she said about the conversations she had with quilt enthusiasts at the International Quilt Festival in Houston. While she said she didn’t get as many sales at the show as she had hoped for, she had very productive conversations with thread vendors who suggested a loom design that could be used with thread. These conversations led to a new product—the Minute Weaver—which was launched three weeks later.
“Even though we didn’t hit the dollar amounts we wanted, we’ve made it up many times over with the sales of the Minute Weaver,” Smith said. This is where Smith’s business savvy shines through. She’s willing to take risks and doesn’t flinch in the face of opportunity costs. While some handmade business owners think nothing of driving around all afternoon to save a few bucks on supplies, Smith makes a case for keeping all her employees in the studio and hiring a courier service to pick up wood from her supplier.
“I see people doing things over and over,” she said. “They seem stuck. They keep spinning their wheels, but they’re not growing.” Instead of doing everything themselves and focusing too intently on saving money, Smith encourages small business owners to think about how much their other options would contribute to a potential growth in sales. One example of this is Smith’s commitment to paying all her employees more than minimum wage so they are less apt to look for a new job or to rush off to another one.
“When you’re talking about a couple of dollars an hour and someone works 20 hours a week, that’s a loom a week,” she said. “All I have to do is sell an extra loom to pay that differential.” Higher wages lead to a happy staff that can invest more positive energy into the business. To be successful in business, Smith says, “Do not let perfection hinder progress, and recognize the true value of opportunity costs.”
To hear Smith talk about her business, listen to the CraftSanity Podcast episode 202 with Jennifer Ackerman-Haywood at CraftSanity.com.
Jennifer is a journalist, podcaster, printmaker, fiber artist, swimmer and community college media adviser. She is also the editor and publisher of CraftSanity Magazine and has produced a podcast about art and craft by the same name since 2006. She blogs at CraftSanity.com, sells her handprinted t-shirts and wooden CraftSanity weaving looms at craftsanity.etsy.com. Jennifer lives in suburban Grand Rapids, Mich., with her husband and two daughters. Follow her fitness and creative adventures on Twitter and Instagram under the name @CraftSanity. Watch her craft tutorials on the CraftSanity YouTube Channel. Contact her by writing firstname.lastname@example.org.