Alison Garwood Jones

7 things my customers taught me in 2018

December 31, 2018

Last summer, the initial delight I felt in seeing my sketchbook drawings on a digital pillow template inspired a new design business in 2018 called Pen Jar Productions.

Now my quirky line drawings are on totes, tees, scarves, and, coming next month, enamel pins! (In these politically-charged times, more of us are wearing our values on our lapels).

Here’s a tour of my studio, where it all happens.

Print-on-demand technology that offers freelancers, like me, automatic fulfilment and shipping has been around for several years, but I only woke up to it in 2018.

ICYMI: here’s an Instagram Stories video I made explaining how my pillows go from a sketchbook drawing to a finished pillow:

As we move into 2019, the things that used to be background noise in my life — benchmarks, brand recognition and break-even points — have taken on a new urgency.

In search of answers to my marketing and accounting conundrums, my podcast lineup has expanded to include:

Shopify Masters
Good Company with Grace Bonney
Pivot Podcast with Jenny Blake
The Agency Leadership Podcast

In the end, though, customer feedback is the best way to learn. Here are the seven things my customers taught me in 2018:

Offer smaller tote bags

I’m tall. Six-foot-one tall. So when I decided to add totes to my mix, I sourced a bag that fit the length of my frame.

Toronto Island Tote Bag by

I forgot to think about how the bag length would work for a petite woman. Isn’t everyone 6’1″?

Then I met Amanda. She lived and worked on the Toronto Islands last summer.

I was wearing my merch one evening when she stopped me and asked if she could slip my ferry tote over her shoulder.

“I love it!” she said. “But it’s too big for me.” I hesitated. No matter. She pressed fifty bucks into my hand and the next time I saw her she modelled the workmanship of her city-side tailor, who lopped off two inches from the top of the bag and the handle. Et voilà!

Toronto Island Ferry Tote Bag by

Amanda modelling her new “Off To The Islands” tote bag by
Toronto Island Ferry tote bag by PenJarProductions.comAmanda’s “Off To The Islands” tote bag hanging out in her sailboat. By

Sign your work

I made some swift sales last month at the Algonquin Island Association Christmas Boutique. at the Algonquin Island Christmas Bazaar At the 2018 Algonquin Island Association Christmas Boutique. It’s blurry, but you get the point.

A woman named Rochelle came up to my table and gravitated to my chiffon scarf featuring scarlet chrysanthemums. “Can I try this on?” she asked.  And off she ran to the ladies room to play with knots and flourishes.

Crimson Mums Chiffon Scarf by

Last week, Rochelle emailed me with some positive feedback and advice:

Hi Alison, Just wanted to let you know that I am enjoying your (my) scarf. You know, your name, signature, initials should be somewhere on your beautiful work. Everyone and anyone should know that it’s a Garwood- Jones artwork. (not that there is anything lacking in your business approach, I just think you’re being modest)

Lovin’ it. Thx.
Rochelle from the island sale. 

How can you not appreciate honesty like that?

On my 2019 To Do list — Fire up PhotoShop and start adding to the corner of every design file on my Shopify site. That’s how you scale, baby!

When you’re a one-woman show handling design, marketing, and sales, it’s easy to overlook the obvious.

Put a face to your business

“People like to meet the maker,” Kyla Walker told me not long after I became an artist partner with Notion, the folks who print and ship my merch (see Kyla in the Instagram Stories video above).

Building an online presence for your business is key. And while Facebook and Instagram ads are still effective, they’re not enough.

You need to put a face to your business and talk to folks, one-on-one, about what do and why you do it.

I researched the craft fairs I could afford to take part in this year and became a craft lady retailer at two: The Ward’s Island Gala Weekend and the aforementioned Algonquin Island Craft Fair. We’ll see what 2019 holds.

Charge what you’re worth

As my business grew, the leads started trickling in. That’s good! Several people inquired about custom pillow designs — “Will you draw me and my boyfriend?” asked one. “I’d love a portrait of my grand piano!” said another — all the while expecting me to charge the same price as the pillow designs I can scale, like my Toronto Island Ferry Pillow.
"Off to the Islands" throw pillow in aqua by

When I earnestly explained that a custom portrait for $20 (my average artist markup) is not a sustainable business model, they all walked away, except for one.

These customers taught me that when you inquire about a custom anything (scarf, pillow, tee), you’re buying the original pen and watercolour art, not just the swatch of cotton that it comes on. Some get it, some don’t. You keep pushing forward.

Note to self: no freelancer can afford to operate like Fiverr.

Getty Images of monkeysSometimes the requests you get as an illustrator can make you feel like a dancing monkey with a tip cup. Source: Getty Images.
Hire a business coach

Technically, this wasn’t a customer tip. But I gasped in surprise when I found out that entrepreneurs I know have had, or still have, a business coach to guide their decision-making. You can do that? I’m so used to being DIY.

As your business grows, I’m finding that it’s really important to understand the ins and outs of accounting, especially when it comes to tax time. If you don’t understand it while you’re small, you’ll be in big trouble as you get bigger, if you get bigger.

Head coach Pat Summitt talks to Shanna Zolman #1 of the Tennessee Lady Vols during a break in the action against the Michigan State Spartans in the Semifinal game of the Women’s NCAA Basketball Championship on April 3, 2005 at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

It’s personal

“My father was a ferry boat captain on the Sam McBride in the 1940s.”

That’s what one woman told me when she saw my Toronto Island Ferry Pillow at a craft fair.

Although she wasn’t a sale, she gave me something more valuable. My pillow, she said, brought back a fond memory. I miss my dad too.

I’m starting to gather a lot of these kinds of stories. Yesterday, Teresa, a customer who has one of my “Joe The Reporter” throw pillows perched against a wingback in her home, emailed me to explain why this illustration resonated with her,

Joe The Reporter Throw Pillow by

Ask for context shots

In the age of social media, customers are only too happy to share how your product looks in their home.

Again, trying to juggle all aspects of my business, I initially forgot to ask for the photographs.

Many customers sent pictures to me pretty much as soon as my packages landed. And, if they didn’t, I now knew to ask them for home decor shots.

To everyone who supported and cheered me on in 2018, my sincerest thanks for making this new adventure so worthwhile.

Happy New Year!

Best Nine 2018, for
From my sketchbook to your home. Best Nine, 2018 at

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