How Danielle Sweeney juggles being a mum and running two home businesses

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Danielle Sweeney has been running her calligraphy business, Design in Words for the past five years and in April 2016 launched Calligraphy Supplies Australia. She runs her businesses from her home in Surrey Hills, Victoria around care for her three-year old daughter.

It’s said that what you enjoy doing in your spare time should spark the inspiration for your business, and that is certainly true for Sweeney.

“To be honest, I fell into the life of calligraphy after moving to Sydney. I learned calligraphy at a very young age, and fell in love with the idea of creating beauty out of simple words. I continued to practice, learning different styles and techniques over the years, until one day, a friend who worked as an events manager asked me to help her out with the styling for a large event and thus, the business was born!”

Since then she has gone on to work with hundreds of clients to create invitations, place cards, and signage for corporate and private events, ranging from huge luxury brand openings to small, intimate dinner parties.

“The current trend in handmade and curated goods for both the home and events has been a blessing for creative entrepreneurs like myself.”

While still focusing on growing her service-based business, Sweeney saw the opportunity to expand her offerings and launched another ecommerce business, Calligraphy Supplies Australia.

“Interest in calligraphy and hand lettering as a hobby has flourished in the last few years, allowing me the opportunity to teach others how to do calligraphy. It was after teaching one of these courses that I realised all of us in Australia have the same problem: accessing high end calligraphy specific supplies without having to pay a huge amount in freight or wait weeks for our products to arrive. So, I started making some phone calls – lots of phone calls – across the globe to my favourite suppliers to obtain the best supplies out there to service this growing community.”

Calligraphy Supplies Australia has been in business for six months now and the demand continues to grow, which is really exciting says Sweeney.

“It has been so warmly embraced by the calligraphy community, and I really work hard to reach out to my clients personally to ensure I am offering them the best supplies at the best prices I can. It’s tricky, but well worth the effort and late night phone calls.”

Finding the best approach

Sweeney’s simple and small approach to getting started is a great example for other businesses and dreamers looking to get a business off the ground. By building up a customer base and getting to know her market she was well positioned to grow.

“As a sole proprietor and one man band, there simply isn’t enough time in the day to do everything immediately and I think this has been the best thing for me. I tend to jump into things with two feet so being forced to plan each step according to budgets, shipping timelines and sales has made me slow down to contemplate each phase of the business before moving forward with the next one. This slow approach has been a great lesson, allowing me to clarify my business goals and ensure I stay true to those goals as I move forward.”

Running two businesses and taking care of her family has been a bit of a steep learning curve.

“I wish I had known so many things before starting out. One of the best lessons I have learned is that you can learn on the fly. We are all our own worst critics — I certainly am! — and I’ve suffered from analysis paralysis too many times; procrastinating on projects or tasks because I haven’t deemed my efforts “good enough” to complete. The truth is that nothing is ever perfect, and it can be changed! I wish I had known this prior to starting out, as I think it would have saved me many sleepless nights trying to make things ‘perfect.’”

Loving what you do and creating a network

As a calligrapher, Sweeney loves that she gets the opportunity to work with people during some of the most important and exciting times of their lives whether those are weddings, parties or other special events. She says that creating something for them and receiving their gratitude and photos from their events is awesome. While there can be a few high stress moments, she has surrounded herself with the right people so that she can meet strict deadlines and work on the fly.

Her calligraphy supply business has also had an overwhelming response from customers since starting out earlier this year.

“The feedback has been incredibly positive, and in the times that it hasn’t been (and there have been some!) it’s been very constructive and helpful. From kind messages via email, to great Instagram posts, to feedback on what types of supplies I should stock, I really feel like I have been warmly embraced by the calligraphy community. With calligraphers scattered around Australia, it’s been amazing to connect with so many different artists and get to know their work. This is one talented country of calligraphers!”

Tackling challenges

But of course it hasn’t all been smooth sailing and the biggest challenge has been logistics and making sure that her clients get their products in a quick, reliable way.

“In my work as a calligrapher, I am often required to ship my completed works around the city for events, and there are always last minute additions and changes. Finding a courier company that would work with me to deliver my goods on time and not cost the earth was a huge issue.”

Sweeney tried using a courier company for years and if her parcels appeared on time it was a miracle. She actually had to stop offering rush orders to her clients, which was damaging to the business.

“As a very small business, I found it very difficult to open a courier account with a larger company as I didn’t meet their traffic volume requirements. As such, when my deliveries went awry (weren’t delivered, were delivered to the wrong person, were late), my complaints were ignored at best. It was very, very frustrating.”

“I had to find a more reliable and cheaper option that was better suited to a small business. I have now used Zoom2u more than 10 times to deliver invitations, large signs, calligraphy supplies and design proofs across Melbourne and back again and have cut my costs by 50 percent.”

She explained that Zoom2u’s real-time tracking has become an essential part of her delivery promise to clients and she can track the parcel and notify clients of delivery, which is essential for those who do not work in traditional office spaces.

“It really has changed my business and allowed me the flexibility to offer my clients incredibly convenient shipping options. It’s allowing me to operate with the freedom of a big company, while staying true to my small business values, timelines and budgets. It’s a game changer.”

The late nights are worth it

But the benefits of having her own business far outweigh the challenges and the flexibility of being able to be her own boss and foster her creativity spurs her forward even during the busy times.

“Even on the nights when I am up past midnight putting the finishing touches on a job. I love the flexibility of my working hours and working space, and love being able to make quick decisions as events unfold. These few things have opened the door for amazing collaborations that have driven my creativity and taught me so much more than I could have imagined.”

As for the future, keeping a close eye on goals and growth for the next 6-12 months are Sweeney’s top priorities. She revisits her ideas for the business weekly, ticking off plans and steps to get her there.  

What’s next

Design in Words has a big year coming up, with workshops in and around Melbourne and in Sydney, all before Christmas.

“We’ve had sell out crowds in the past, so I’m working on adapting and updating my curriculum to add as much value as possible into my Modern Calligraphy Workshops. My branded “Learn Calligraphy Kit” will be in stores around Melbourne by Christmas, so I am putting together the finishing touches on that, while also working on a couple of really exciting collaborations for printed works — can’t let the cat out of the bag yet! — that should be launching early in 2017.”

Calligraphy Supplies Australia is still in its infancy, but with strong growth in the first six months of business, she is optimistic for the future.

“I am looking at expanding the lines of ink, nibs and other materials that we carry to ensure I am meeting the needs of novice and experienced calligraphers around Australia and looking forward to branching out further into the New Zealand market. I am also working on a super exciting calligraphy event that will be announced in the coming months, that I am thrilled to be a sponsor for.”

She says it’s all systems go, but she wouldn’t have it any other way!

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Chloe Potvin
Chloe Potvin is a contributing small business writer for Kochie's Business Builders.