As I shared last week, I invited followers to ask questions on my Instagram Stories and I received so many questions that I decided to sort them into categories and answer them in blog posts. In the last Insta Q&A post, I answered home-related questions. You can find that post HERE.
I was asked a lot of posts about my business and creative business in general, so I decided to pick out the milk paint related questions, so that post wouldn’t be a novella. This post on its own is pretty lengthy!
How did you get started making paint?
I’m so glad someone asked this question because it’s such a good story! I feel like I can say that because it’s an opportunity that unfolded for me. I was a participant and a character, but not the author. I merely took a step forward each time there was room in front of me to do so.
It’s a story that started when I painted furniture for clients and to sell at a local consignment store in Gettysburg, PA and then in three locations in Maryland (Wild Rose & Chartreuse) and Virginia (Lucketts). I was on the hunt for products that would give me a result that looked authentic on older pieces of furniture. Distressing latex paint just didn’t yield the look I wanted. It rolled and peeled under the rub of a piece of sandpaper. My search led me to try all sort of products and eventually I landed on milk paint.
It did magical things that I had never experienced with any other paint and I was sold.
Why had I only seen this amazing paint in little paper bags sitting on the shelves at antique stores, most of them covered in a thin layer of dust? Why were all of the color palettes only colonial/primitive colors?
As I mixed my own custom colors and experimented further with milk paint, discovering what it could do, a small idea took root. It started as an idea of what “someone” should do. Someone should rebrand milk paint, so it looks prettier on the shelves. Someone should teach people how to use this curious, obscure powdered paint. Someone should introduce milk paint in a fresh palette.
And, somewhere along the line, I wondered why that someone couldn’t be me.
A few months earlier, I had been sent product by Homestead House Paint Co. in Canada. I had been using their products on furniture, but I was in the middle of working on my first book, so any thoughts of seriously trying to launch a paint line were on the back burner. Homestead House hadn’t specified how they wanted to work with me, though, but it felt like an open door to at least ask. So, when the book was nearing completion, I nervously typed an e-mail to them, pitching the idea of developing custom colors and having them packaged under my private label.
My hope was that they would mix the colors, send me large bags of the powdered milk paint, and my family and I could repackage it in my basement. I would then sell it online and out of my space at Lucketts. What I didn’t realize is that aside from that idea being completely moronic and naive, I drastically underestimated how big this paint line could be.
Well, I would have to figure that all out, because Homestead House said yes.
With no idea what I was fully getting into, I started mixing potential colors, making a list of names, and testing companion finishes and products. We were still ironing out all of the details of packaging, labeling, etc. when I asked if I could publicly announce that I would be launching a paint line.
On April 27, 2012, I announced on the blog that my “pie in the sky dream” of having a product line had come true. The next day, I had over 50 e-mail inquiries from shop owners who wanted to carry my paint line in their store.
No lie, I cried. I sobbed. I didn’t have a warehouse or a staff or any idea how to package and distribute a product. I was completely and totally in over my head. Homestead House, excited by the enthusiastic response and the growth potential, talked me out of turning down potential retailers or quitting the idea entirely. We worked through processes, procedures, product designs, product testing, color development, label laws and requirements, contracts, expenses, commissions, distribution, logistics, management, etc. I was flying by the seat of my pants and learning as I went and I will tell you, it was a very scary and exciting time, but I learned a lot! Unfortunately, I learned by making a lot of mistakes, but I got enough things right that in August of 2012, I received my first shipment of Miss Mustard Seed’s Milk Paint along with over 100 retailers in the US and Canada (with retailers being added in the UK and Australia/New Zealand in the near future).
I couldn’t find my old pictures of the original packaging, but here is one where you can see the old and the new together. The paint was initially sold in boxes! I still love the look and idea of those, but it was very impractical and one of those lessons I had to learn about labor-intensive packaging and shipping volume.
And, here we are today! The paint is sold in over 300 retail locations around the world and in major online marketplaces like Amazon, Etsy, and eBay. We have distributors in Canada, the UK, Australia/New Zealand, Belgium (serving most of Europe), and Italy. We have been featured in magazines in the US, Canada, Germany, Italy, France, England, and Sweden.
The line now consists of 25 colors and 14 companion products.
It makes one think a little harder about those “why not me” ideas, doesn’t it?
How involved are you in the milk paint line?
I thought this was a good question, too, because there is a lot I do for the milk paint line that is very much behind the scenes. It is one of the main aspects of my business, so I do spend a lot of time on it. Just because I don’t mention it on my blog during a particular period of time doesn’t mean I’m not working on it. I have weekly meetings with my team to go over our social media numbers and ideas for recognizing our existing customers and growing the brand. I also spend time on customer service (yes, people get e-mails directly from me helping them troubleshoot a problem), retailer care, teaching workshops, retailer training, new product development, product photography, and marketing ideas and materials to name a few things.
A product line needs to be promoted continuously and ideas have to adapt to a dynamic market and fickle consumers. I have learned that lots of nurturing is needed to keep it going.
Since the milk paint line started out as a small idea, I don’t feel the need to always push to make it bigger. It already exploded and surpassed any dream I had for it. I’m like a parent who is aware of her child’s gifts and limitations. As much as I love it and know how amazing it is, I know milk paint is a niche product and it always will be. My approach over the years has been to grow organically and to be content if that growth is slow.
Will there be new milk paint colors coming out?
I can safely say yes, but there is an asterisk to put on that answer. Most of our retailers are small businesses. Some are very small, in fact, and I don’t want to burden them with a large inventory. For that reason, I am committed to not having more than 25 colors in the line. So, when we add new colors, they will either be limited edition colors that are not included in the line of 25 or we will retire a color in order to add a new one.
How many people work for you?
This is a general business question, but I put it under the milk paint post since three of my four regular part-time employees exclusively help with management of the milk paint line. And, I have to brag for a minute and say that I have an incredible team.
My social media duo for Miss Mustard Seed’s Milk Paint consists of Jenn and Chris. (This is just for the MMSMP accounts. I manage the Miss Mustard Seed ones on my own, so my voice is authentic on those platforms.) Jenn manages the Instagram account and Chris takes care of our Facebook page. Even though there is overlap in our followings and both platforms are owned by the same company, we’ve found that each one requires a unique perspective to connect with the audience effectively. They both do an amazing job on their platform and we’ve seen a lot of growth in those pages since they took over. They are also both MMSMP retailers, so this is a part-time job that dovetails nicely with their own businesses. In addition, they are intimately familiar with the products, so they can answer customer questions from their own extensive experience with the product.
Wendy is the retailer care specialist for the MMSMP line. She is my right hand when it comes to managing our retailers – keeping them inspired and motivated, providing support and training, resolving concerns, etc. I cannot even tell you how good she is at what she does. Wendy has this magical personality that makes you feel at ease and excited simultaneously. She makes you want to work harder and smarter, but she isn’t pushy about it. This personality trait has made her a great person for me to bounce ideas off of. She is not hesitant to be bossy with me (in a good way) in order to keep me on track but she always allows me to be true to my business style and core values.
Heidi has been with me the longest and is my Jill-on-the-spot when it comes to just about anything. She does so much to make me look better than I am. She is a graphic and web designer, so she does almost all of my graphic design work (blog/web buttons, marketing materials, lookbook layouts, fabric repeats, etc.) and a lot of the technical work on my blog and other websites. (I do have a designer, Reni of Bliss & Tell, and a web design/hosting firm who handle the large jobs like major branding changes/projects and complete website overhauls.) Heidi also helps Wendy with managing milk paint retailers, she processes new retailer applications, keeps our database and retailer map up to date, etc. I can’t even name everything she does, because it’s so vast and varied. If I’m working on it, Heidi probably has a finger in it somewhere. She has also been key in helping me develop new products and ideas. Often times I know what I want, but it’s stuck in my head and I don’t know how to communicate it visually. I will describe it to her or show her a rough sketch and then she’ll bring it to life in Photoshop or Illustrator.
She has been so patient with me as half of the ideas she brings to life end up languishing in my “graveyard of good ideas.” Sometimes I need to chase an idea for a little while, though, before I run with it, put it on the back burner, shift gears, or rule it out entirely.
We have worked together for over six years and met for the first time about a year and a half ago. I was teaching a workshop in her town, so she came to hang out and the help. Meeting her in person was so natural and she was every bit as in tune with me in a workshop setting as she is when I give her free reign on a blog refresh.
I’ve often joked with the people I work with that I’m terrible at giving job titles. I do a lot of things, so I need the people who work for me to be able to be flexible and help me with whatever is important at that particular time.
Heidi’s e-mail signature simply says, “Marian’s Assistant”, which doesn’t even begin to sound as important as she actually is to my business. Internally, we call her “the administrative ninja”, because she quickly and quietly gets everything done. You almost have to do a double-take, because she is so fast and sneaky.
I simply can’t give her enough credit or express how awesome she is. All I know is that every successful entrepreneur most likely has a Heidi in their pocket.
That is “my team”, but I also subcontract out a few things like some of the MMSMP product photography (to get a fresh perspective), web hosting, ad management, Pinterest & SEO management, and processing MMSMP products to list on Amazon. Of course, I also have an accounting firm that runs my payroll and makes sure I’m on top of my taxes and a legal firm I work with as needed.
I read somewhere that hemp oil should never be used on leather because it hardens. Thoughts?
I have used Hemp Oil on leather countless times and I have never had any of those pieces harden. So, I’m not sure where that idea came from, but that has not been my experience.
You can read all about using Hemp Oil to revive dried out leather boots HERE.
Those were a bunch of short questions with long answers!
I know some of you have been reading my blog for a long time and went through this milk paint journey with me as it unfolded, but others have joined me along the way and may not know that starting a business was a huge leap of faith for me. When you look at it from a practical standpoint, I didn’t have the experience or education to start a business, launch a blog, or develop a product line. But the internet has made the world smaller in many ways and more seems possible for the average person with lofty dreams that may have been out of reach, even impossible only a decade ago.
So, I just want to leave you with some encouragement. Launching a paint line was never a goal that I thought was attainable, but it happened. It’s required a lot of work and it’s not always glamorous, but it’s become a big part of my business and my business story. And I’m glad some of my Instagram followers asked about it!
More Instagram Q & As to come…