You would think Martha Stewart endorsing a company’s signature product on TV would provide a straight path to success. For Mary Lynn Schroeder, owner of leather goods manufacturer In Blue Handmade, a shout-out from the Queen of Craft was a little more complicated.
“I listed our leather journal on Etsy in November of 2009 and on Dec. 2, 2009, it was featured on Martha Stewart’s TV show,” Schroeder says. “I’d only made five of these! I woke up the next morning, and there were 80 orders. It was a crazy season.”
Schroeder scrambled, recruiting friends to help. “We would work all night with pizza and beer and make journals,” she says. “I don’t think I slept at all.” Eight years later, she’s still making leather accessories and still surrounded by friends. Now, though, her company is a top seller of artisanal leather goods on Etsy, supplies over 300 wholesale accounts and, in 2015, brought in nearly $1 million of revenue.
Sewing wasn’t an obvious choice for Schroeder. Before starting, her previous decade had been spent in Chicago, working in the music industry. She began with booking and promotion, worked for Warped Tour and did local shows before transitioning into the more stable world of record distribution. Despite being on a solid track in a creative industry, Schroeder didn’t feel particularly motivated. ”I was doing well. I just didn’t love it, and I wanted to love it.”
In 2008, Schroeder quit her job, packed up a U-Haul and moved to a remote farm in Makanda, Ill. (population 400). There, she found a new confidence in the problem-solving demanded by the solo homesteading lifestyle. Purchasing a sewing machine fit into her newfound streak of self-sufficiency.
After a few months of lessons, she started making simple, unlined cloth tote bags and selling them in a local store on consignment. A few months later, sales of those items led her to opening a brick-and-mortar boutique. Unable to ever fully depart from the music world, Schroeder chose the company name In Blue Handmade in reference to the Bob Dylan song “Tangled Up in Blue.”
She also made a decision (simple at the time, brilliant in hindsight) to start listing items on the e-commerce website Etsy, just 3 years old at the time. “That was a lotto ticket for us,” Schroeder says. In 2005, Etsy sellers sold $170,000 worth of goods; in 2015, that number had grown to $2.4 billion.
After three years, Etsy and wholesale e-commerce had become the main source of revenue for the business. Schroeder made the tough call to sell her storefront and dedicate herself fully to e-commerce. “I couldn’t do a good job at both and sleep,” she says. “The thing that I’ve learned the most is you make a list of what you’re good at. You have to take ego out of it and ask, ‘Am I most effective here?’ Then, you either learn to do it better or hire someone who will be better.”
In 2010, Schroeder moved to Asheville to focus exclusively on manufacturing. She introduced wallets, guitar straps and flasks alongside the leather journal. The business continued to grow. Her experience in the music world helped her navigate the inevitable business growing pains. “In some ways, the problems you have to solve as a midsize band are similar to those of a midsized company,” she says. Improvisation is the best way deal with these challenges: “Adaptability is maybe the most important thing as a small-business owner and employee.”
Despite the rapid growth, Schroeder maintains an easy atmosphere on her production floor, a large industrial space in West Asheville. Pets patter about, musical instruments are tucked under tables, and employees casually chat while fulfilling orders. “I need a friendly, happy place with our dogs. That’s how I’m creative and at my best,” she says. It also works for her employees. “The people want to be here, and they also want to see the business win.”
Her energy and optimism are palpable and fuel not only her business, but others as well. Schroeder recently returned after being invited to speak on multiple panels at the annual Etsy corporate conference in New York. Last year, In Blue Handmade won the FedEx Small Business grant, which came with $25,000 and a seat on FedEx’s Entrepreneurial Advisory Board.
When asked what advice she gives to people starting out, Schroeder emphasizes the importance of being yourself. “When I have failed, it’s because I went against my gut,” she says. “You have to be yourself. Everybody wants to give you advice, and that’s great, but you should really be pursuing what your idea of a great company is. Picture the best pathway and make it happen.”
To learn more, visit Etsy.com/shop/inblue or inbluehandmade.com