Customer story: Things I learnt from starting my own card company

Having successfully completing a degree in Illustration last year, after fifteen years of full-time education, I was left asking myself that daunting question facing nearly all graduates: “What do I do now?”  

I had decided years before that I wanted to pursue my creative dreams, but suddenly I was realising that doing what you love doesn’t always allow you to pay your rent. With the recession still causing problems for even the most experienced professionals and unemployment rates high, I was faced with the dilemma of looking for freelance and intern opportunities while working part time or taking a risk and going it alone.
Working for myself and being creatively independent was always a dream but it was just that – a dream. Could I really go straight from university to starting my own business?

During my final year I interned at a greeting cards company, which gave me an insight into how a small business really works, and taught me a lot about the manufacture and retail process. I loved the balance between designing, production, marketing and sales, and I decided this would be the perfect way for me to enter the creative business world. But, most importantly, I realised greeting cards allowed me to design for many different audiences and occasions, giving an amazing level of creative freedom.

I started sketching and painting potential designs, looking through my favourite illustration books and personal sketchbooks for some inspiration, until one day I drew a little armadillo that I was quite happy with. I worked on it a bit more, editing the initial sketch on the computer until I finally created my first finished card design.
Using savings to purchase some materials and to buy my domain name, I spent the next couple of months developing my website and producing more designs until finally, earlier this year, after weeks of nervous planning, I launched my website.

My first customers were my friends and family, and having them behind me, always willing to offer support and honest feedback, still gives me constant motivation. However the real incentive came when strangers started buying my designs. Knowing other people liked them was incredibly reassuring and it is lovely to know that somewhere in the world, someone is receiving one of my cards.

It’s important to point out that there have been a few sacrifices and hiccups along the way. Moving back in with my parents after four years away was much better than I expected (no offence mum and dad!) and I’m lucky they are willing to have me, but it definitely was a shock to the system. Similarly, it took a while to adjust to the lack of a fixed, regular income all taxed and organised by my boss. Instead I was suddenly waiting for payments and speedily learning how to write up expenditure and complete a tax return (that part of a business is as interesting as it sounds!). But the biggest change I had to make was to my attitude. Being a self-confessed control freak, the whole idea of taking a gamble, not just with time and money but with my ambitions, was the scariest idea in the world. Yet with few job prospects in my chosen field, no dependents relying on me financially and incredibly supportive parents behind me, it was the best decision I could have made at the time. It’s still early days for Darwin Designs but hopefully, with enough time and hard work, the gamble will pay off.   

Five tips for success

If you have a family to look after, bills to pay or limited free time it can seem impossible to consider making a living from designing. But it could be easier than you think to make a little extra money from your creative hobbies.  Here is my key advice if you want to give it a go...

Just do it
Nothing will stand in your way more than you! Being scared to fail is normal but not trying is a much bigger failure. The longer you put things off, the more time there is for doubts to creep in. In retrospect, I could have launched my website weeks earlier, but I convinced myself everything had to be perfect and I wasn’t ready. In reality, I learnt much more when I actually started trading than I had in the weeks of preparation.

It doesn’t have to cost a fortune
Obviously, if you design solid gold jewellery, the materials are going to be a bit pricey, but there are plenty of more affordable ideas you can try. Upcycling old clothes and home items can cost very little but produce amazing results. Once you have your handmade creation, you could try selling it to friends and family or list it on Etsy, which costs just $0.20 per item.

Stay inspired
I love looking at other people’s designs and creations almost as much as I love designing myself. Following art and design blogs and collecting images on Pinterest is a great way to see amazing new talent and get some extra inspiration for your own work. But remember that there is a fine line between being inspired by and copying someone else’s work. This collection of creative inspiration blogs is a great place to start.

Keep connected
Using social networks is one of the easiest ways to advertise your crafty creations to friends, family and the world. Photo sharing sites like Instagram are great for gathering initial interest. All it takes is a clear, well-lit photo of your product to get people’s attention and in the caption you can explain where they can buy it and find out more. To really utilise social media, create accounts on several different networks and learn how to use them for their strengths. Darwin Designs has Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest as well as a Blog. Although some posts do get repeated, each site has its own purpose. For example, I use Twitter to share articles I think my customers would love and Instagram for behind the scenes snapshots.

Do it because you love it
Of course, making money is fantastic, but if you love your creative hobby don’t let the idea of a profit get in the way of your passion for the process. Try to look at the potential extra money as a great bonus, rather than being your main motivation.


Alex runs the design business Darwin Designs from her home in the Midlands. You can see more of her work and visit her shop at


Stuart Glegg
24 Jun 2014 15:03
Great post.

I'd love to see a standard element on these Customer's Stories that was 'This was printed on...' or something that gave the spec of the paper etc they use. Would be really insightful.
24 Jun 2014 21:55
Totally agree with the 'Just do it' part. I started my business over a year ago and haven't looked back. Good luck to you Alex!
25 Jun 2014 10:54
Lovely post, and something I can really relate to with regard to the 'just do it' part. Good luck with your venture!
28 Jun 2014 15:05
lovely post and something that's so good
28 Jun 2014 15:16
this is so lovely...i love reading you blog
29 Jul 2014 09:42
great post! I love the customer story section!
David Fleming
27 Aug 2014 08:39
Really enjoyed reading your story, and wishing you every success in the future. Great designs on those cards too.
melanie Green
03 May 2015 16:47
lovely to see how close to my own experience yours is. I agree with the just do it part too... I had the same experience with my website and am a total control freak too.
08 Feb 2017 08:58
inspiring read
Bryony Bishop
25 Apr 2017 13:56
Something i've been thinking about for a long time but never had the courage to go for. Some really great advice here and lovely card designs!

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