Europeans also wear Ukrainian handmade hair accessories: how a migrant created a business from scratch
How important are the first investments? Where to get inspiration and look for customers? How can a small business survive a pandemic? Rubryka explains
Everyone knows the advice of the Chinese sage Confucius: "Choose a job you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life." Everyone dreams of turning their favorite pursuit into a source of their income. Business ideas connected with things you know how to do with your own hands are more relevant today than ever. Surveys say that today's youth prioritize success in a hobby that has become a job. This is more important for them than starting a family and even their level of income.
The development of social media and the ability to reach customers allows many talented people who know how to work with their hands to open their own business. Originality, the ability to navigate trends, and the skill to constantly learn helps to stay in the turbulent ocean of fierce competition.
Anastasia Ahalakova, a migrant from Donbas, and now a resident of Pavlohrad, creates hair ornaments with her own hands. Before, she made them only for her daughters, and now, thanks to interesting posts, quality photos, and competent marketing, she successfully sells them on the Internet everywhere in Ukraine and abroad, in particular. Rubryka asked the master how to turn a hobby into a business, using the opportunities of EU programs in Ukraine.
If you can, do it!
Anastasia Ahalakova is an industrial engineer according to education. During maternity leave, she, like many young mothers, watched beautiful pictures with handicrafts on the Internet and admired the skill of human hands. Once she decided to try to make a hairband for her youngest daughter, 6 months old then. It was a simple chiffon flower on an elastic base. Older twin girls got similar accessories. Unexpectedly for the novice master, the girls began to receive many compliments and kind words, so Nastia decided to expand her collection. She took a fundamental approach: she thought over the models, drew sketches, figured out what color fabric to buy, what other accessories to use. She made a dozen binds, including for herself. She photographed her products and posted them on the website with the Ukrainian handmade products "Skrynia." After a while, an order came for 3 things, and then, for 41!
At that moment, the woman finally realized that handicrafts are in demand, and people need them, so she began to look for where else to express herself and her work. She created social media pages and began to receive orders little by little. She started from scratch. Any order for her was a challenge to come up with something new, something she had never done before. At the same time, she watched various master classes on Youtube, tried to find out the secrets of perfect work, which she saw on the pages of more experienced masters: "I was interested in trying everything related to decorating children's hairstyles, and this interest moved me forward from the beginning."
If only you have money, you also need knowledge
Talent is an important component in mastering creative pursuits. But to turn a hobby into a business, deftly holding a needle or a hook and having impeccable taste is not enough. From Anastasia Ahalakova's experience, it's equally important to transform your worldview into entrepreneurial thinking. Think, calculate, and plan much further than today.
"I always study for some reason," the master says, "for a fee and for free. I watch videos, read expert articles in profile blogs, photos, visuals, marketing, storytelling, video shooting, consumer psychology, copywriting, targeting, etc. I try to think like a businessperson, and this topic may be the most relevant for growth. Today's world is changing so fast, it's very important to keep up with the times and use modern techniques to promote your business. That's why knowledge (both basic and advanced) is something that I never spare time for. I was not taught economics, design, or marketing at the university, and I'm looking for knowledge in these topics."
One of the educational courses Anastasia took part in was launched by the NGO "Ukrainian Association of Freelancers" from Kramatorsk. Virtual training "Handmade online" is one of the twenty initiatives supported by the Ukrainian Women's Fund with EU funding. Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, the European Union has assembled a package of more than €190 million in rapid response grants to help Ukraine tackle the pandemic. One of the areas of such support was the promotion of economic recovery, as well as assistance to vulnerable groups.
"Ukrainian Association of Freelancers" has developed a program resulting in women-handicrafters saving income, restoring or taking virtual sales channels to a new level during quarantine restrictions.
More than 600 applications of needlewomen, not only from Ukraine but also from abroad, were submitted for participation in the training course. As a result of a three-stage selection, which considered the level of participants' interest, the type of activity in handmade, the level of entrepreneurial knowledge, and business skills, Anastasia Ahalakova was included in the listeners. Meetings were held in Zoom. For a month, two or three times a week, the trainers taught the masters the intricacies of marketing, copywriting and photography live. Experts used specific examples to explain how to have a dialogue with the client and promote products on social media, how to write accompanying texts, how to profitably present your products in a photo. Additional consultations and pieces of training on women's leadership were also held. In addition, the project is aimed not only to teach but also to unite craftswomen. The professional community in Viber, created at the beginning of training, has become a remote club of communication and mutual support.
"This training really helped me to better reformat my business, which was also negatively affected by COVID-19, and raise my online sales skills to a higher level. I learned a lot about targeting, advertising, e-commerce, became more confident, understood what steps I need to take to retain and increase the number of customers. Although I confess, I personally would like the program to be longer with specific tasks, working out my niche, and feedback on my mistakes and strengths."
You often hear that you can't start your own business without money. People are chasing grants, sponsors. But the Pavlhrad needlewoman has a different opinion; money doesn't always solve the problem. If a person has no experience in the business he/she is going to develop, then in the early stages, knowledge is more important! Without knowledge of what and how to do, money will most likely turn into a negative experience.
"At the beginning of my career, another grant program I participated in in 2015-2016 gave a great impetus to me. There was an outreach week of entrepreneurial skills training, followed by a business plan competition. I was among the winners and received support for my business idea with a share of 80% grant funds, 20% own funds. The program also included support from specialized experts, who I could ask for help in implementing my project for 4 months. Even then, I realized that knowledge is paramount, and money is the second point to a smart head."
Selling Ukrainian handmade abroad is real!
It so happened that most of Anastasia Ahalakova's customers from abroad buy products for themselves (i.e. these are ornaments for adults), and most of the sales in Ukraine are children's accessories. Handmade customers from the EU are more independent people who appreciate handicrafts and are willing to pay for quality, design, and uniqueness, and still, wait and pay for international delivery. "Mostly they buy accessories for parties, photoshoots, some events when you need to look interesting," the master says. "My clients in Europe don't hesitate to wear a band with ears, a crown, and a unicorn headband; they easily have fun and enjoy their cool, unusual look. And they also buy bands embroidered with rhinestones and beads for special occasions. It's very nice when they write words of gratitude, leave feedback. Sometimes, they send their photos."
"Before I started selling abroad, I spent 2 years gathering and reading the information in a Facebook group, where experienced sellers shared their situations, discussed pressing topics, and exchanged experiences. And I also watched many videos on this topic. I was absorbed in this topic, I understood approximately what I could face, I knew where to ask questions and get support. This is my experience. Someone is acting at once… I have long doubted myself if I'll succeed."
The master notes that to interest a solvent European or overseas customer, you need to constantly follow the trends, produce what's now in demand, understand the values of those you're targeting. The key point is to be able to react quickly to the vagaries of fashion, adjust your creativity to them, imagine, offer options for a given fashion trend. Be able to work with individual orders. Timely answer questions from potential customers, be very polite in correspondence, and punctual in fulfilling orders. Create seasonal collections for the holidays: Christmas, Mother's Day, Valentine's Day, Halloween. Don't forget and don't regret preparing regular sales; the Western world is waiting for such occasions.
"I have sent products to the USA, Great Britain, Canada, Italy, Denmark, Germany; they find me on Etsy (the world handmade website). I'd like to move further in this direction, in particular, to improve my English. I always worry about correspondence, because I'm not very sure that I'm speaking correctly and customers understand me."
There are also objective problems. "Since 2020 (during the pandemic) Ukrposhta has stopped providing delivery timelines," Anastasia shares. "I had a parcel that flew to Europe for 3.5 months, and a parcel that flew to America and returned in 8 months (and the person is waiting for the parcel, the money for delivery is paid!) Ukrposhta stopped being responsible for the quality of its services, so I started to use only the services of intermediaries. It's 2 times more expensive (and befalls on the customer), but there's constant communication with the persons responsible for the service, chat support, and specific delivery times. Another very painful issue is duty-free imports from abroad into the EU. The purchase amount is up to 22 euros now. And soon, any parcel imported from outside the EU will be subject to customs duties. And the amount of duty is not small. This makes it difficult to sell to EU countries."
So any business has its difficulties and advantages. Selling abroad is not only making a boatload of money but also looking for ways and solutions.
Where to get ideas?
"I'm inspired by watching pictures on Pinterest, viewing workshops on YouTube and modern series, reading articles about fashion trends, watching clothing stores (both adult and children's), watching colleagues. But the most important thing when creating products is materials and components because no matter what's the basis of the master class, the output may be a completely different product: replacing 1 or more components, adding or reducing some elements gives the output a completely different decor! Materials solve a lot! Sometimes, the imagination is so fascinating that instead of one accessory, you create an entire collection. Ideas come, but I can embody them in a different color, with a different texture, etc."
Anastasia's inspiration and muses are her daughters. On them, she tests children's accessories, learns the response to a particular model of bow or band. And the girls help to demonstrate accessories acting as models and showing their mother's collections. The whole family helps the master to implement the ideas. Nastia's husband is the chief technologist and designer by profession. "If I need technical improvement of my tools and devices, he'll always come to the rescue. Oleksandr made me a soldering iron with temperature control for different types and methods of fabric processing. He designed a machine for making crown frames, a template for tulle tutu skirts, exhibition stands for local fairs. And the eldest son participates as a courier bringing parcels from the post office and sending them to recipients if suddenly I can't do it."
Anastasia says that hundreds of ornaments made for her online store helped her understand: the key thing is to do what you like and enjoy. Then some forces and opportunities give development to the cause, inner uplift, and inspiration. When asked what handmade is for her now — work, source of income, or creativity, she answers: "Probably, it's all together. But to this, I'd add self-realization, of my abilities, and talents. And yet, my accessories are my way to be useful to people, make them happy and beautiful!"