They say every crisis is an opportunity. For Emma, the owner, creator and head honcho at Happy Hands Happy Heart, a personal struggle with anxiety led to a successful business making all natural play dough.
Yup, this successful small business owner gets to make play dough faces and call it work. Of course, like most small business owners she does it all including balancing books, juggling orders, managing stock.
In four short years Emma has taken to business to countless markets, built a legion of loyal customers and created a unique look and feel for her brand.
Emma’s here today to share some insights into her experiences.
Pete: So, what is Happy Hands Happy Heart?
Emma: We make a range of all-natural scented play doughs specifically designed to enhance common wellbeing and reduce stress and anxiety. Our main purpose is to encourage calm, creative play.
Pete: What was the reason for starting it?
Emma: I was at home with three kids, and my mental health wasn’t awesome. My anxiety was creeping up on me a fair bit so I needed to do something about it.
I sought help and I realised one of the main things was that I’d lost my creative outlet. I had always painted or drawn or crafted and with three little kids at home there just wasn’t time to do that. So, I decided I needed to do something with my hands every single day to try and alleviate those symptoms and keep my head in the right space.
I thought, we’ll play with play dough every day, make something together and have some calm and quiet time.
It worked really, really well. I was also playing with aromatherapy at the time. I decided to put them together and make play dough myself.
Then I thought, actually there is something else in this, I think other people would like it a lot too. I decided to test it at a market and the rest is history really.
Pete: When did you launch?
Emma: We just celebrated our fourth birthday!
Pete: ...and how did you learn to make the play dough?!
Emma: I used to make it for the kids all the time and I had a few friends that used to ask me to make it for them.
I didn’t think it was anything special but the more I made people were saying, “It’s special, it’s really, really soft”. So, I kept making it. I can’t explain it because I originally started with the recipe I think everybody uses. I’ve tweaked it and altered it so that it’s now my recipe, but if I gave that recipe to anybody else I don’t think it would turn out the same.
It’s just like baking, you can follow the recipe but it doesn’t mean it’s going to turn out, and I cannot make biscuits properly or scones. My scones turn into biscuits and my biscuits turn into scones. For some reason my play dough just works. It’s not exact every time, I tweak it and do it by eye and by feel.
Pete: How long did it take for the business become viable?
Emma: For the first 12 months I was also working as a freelance photographer as well as being a full-time stay-at-home parent. I was just doing a local market once a month and then I thought, I need to give it a real crack.
I was struggling wearing so many different hats. I thought if I actually put more into this I think it will grow and be something really special. I took the risk and took 12 months off photography and just did play dough and as soon as I made that step things changed really quickly. That’s probably when I started to take a wage, and it has slowly grown from there.
I also realised, I’m getting so much more out of it, the enjoyment factor, the creative freedom, the way that it works with my family.
Pete: You mentioned that anxiety was part of the reason for starting Happy Hands. Has there been any point where the stress of juggling small business and family, and working late nights has really affected you?
Emma: Actually making the play dough is incredibly therapeutic. I really enjoy it, that’s my downtime – to stop, think, reflect. So when I get really busy and I don’t have as much time to do that I notice it.
That’s when I realise I’ve got to pull back and make time (to destress) which was the whole purpose of this business in the first place.
Pete: Like a lot of small businesses that we know, you started out in markets, and now you are also wholesaling to select stores. How do you find those relationships?
Emma: The last 12 months have been difficult with my workload and family workload that I probably haven’t nurtured them as much as I would like to. Usually we strike up a bit of a friendship first. If there’s a problem they come to me straight away and I fix it straight away, so yes we have a pretty good relationship.
I often promote my stockists on social too, I want to promote and support them as well – but I’ve run out of time recently!
Pete: A few brands use Postie to keep in touch their wholesale stockists and to send out content and images, that the retailers can use on their own social - I'm not going to take any credit for the idea though, I think it was Jaimee at Bella Buttercup who first starting doing that.
Emma: Oh that’s what I need to do! I have the Dropbox for my stockists. As soon as they’ve got their first lot (of product) I share that so they’ve got free content. I always say take whatever you want from my Instagram and here are a whole heap of product images that you can help yourself to anytime. I try and make it easy for them!
Pete: Ok, nice! Tell us a bit about your marketing. Do you do paid advertising, or Facebook or Google ads?
Emma: Very rarely. This year I have signed up for a few Christmas directories but generally for the first two years I did no paid advertising. It was only social media and now I dip in a little bit here and there.
I’ve done Facebook ads once and it’s something I need to look at a bit more. I just find it difficult to get my head around. It’s fairly time consuming to get it set up because that’s not my strength.
I know Facebook ads are beneficial for me in those times when I’ve got like limited edition product that I really need to push out in a small amount of time. With my regular products, it doesn’t matter so much. I’m better off sending it to an influencer and getting them to talk about it.
Pete: How do you find working with influencers?
Emma: Influencers have been incredible for me and that’s been a big part of my success.
I say it’s a lot luck based, which it is with influencers but I was actually really brave there a few times where I just said “You know what I’m just going to send this personal letter and see how it goes.”
So, I got some pretty big names talking about my play dough on social media - without paying them early on which was incredible. I just sent it out to people in the hope that they might like it and if they do, they post. If not, I don’t mind either. There’s no expectation of a set amount of photographs. That’s worked for me really well so far.
I don’t think I’d ever do a contract thing. I’m not a hard sell type of person.
Pete: You have dozens of scents from Mandarin to Vanilla to Chocolate and special editions like Plum Pudding!. How do you make decisions about what new products to make?
Emma: Sometimes I just decide and just wing it. Other times I make a prototype and show the kids and if they say yes then we go ahead.
Once, I had 10 minutes before I had to be at an appointment and I rang my sister and said I need my nieces and nephews to be product testers. I’m going to be literally driving out the front of your house and then driving off again, I just need them to tell me if the scent is good. She had all the kids out at the front ready for me. I drove in, got out, gave them a smell and I said, what does it smell like? They got it straight away and said it’s good. And it was one of my best sellers. (It was the Special Edition Toasted Pink Marshmallow).
Pete: Scent is so subjective right?
Emma: Yes! Like with lavender and liquorice - people love it or hate it. It’s just one of those things but I hope that with all of our flavours there’s something for everybody.
Pete: How do you deal with copycat brands?
Emma: I don’t is the short answer. When it first started happening it was pretty upsetting. You spend so much time creating this product, your branding, your packaging, then to see something so similar is really disheartening.
But then I have to say to myself: it doesn’t matter. There are so many people in the world and I always come back to the same analogy: if Coke and Pepsi can run side by side selling a drink and have billion-dollar businesses then I can have a few competitors and it’s not going to matter.
Pete: To finish up, I’ve got some quickfire questions. What’s your website built using and why?
Emma: Wix, but I’m doing a new one with Shopify right now – for the ease of integration between website and sending out parcels and labels, that sort of stuff talks together. I did a lot of research, and I think that was just that next level up for me.
Pete: I'm sure you get a lot of inbound email and Insta DMs. What's your approach for dealing with that side of the business?
Emma: I try and reply straight away otherwise it snowballs. I struggle with DMs in that you can’t really file them or tick done. So, as soon as I see it I try and do it straight away and then if there is a follow up that’s required send it to myself in an email so I can track it.
Postie: Do you have a favorite work app?
Emma: It used to be Flipagram. I used to use that all the time, making stop motions and time lapses, it would put music on it – but they changed it and its not as good anymore. So now Instagram I guess.
Pete: Do you track conversion rates, Google Analytics?
Emma: No. I need to but I don’t.
Pete: What’s the best thing you ever did to get more followers and sales?
Emma: Influencers that align with my brand properly - not just because they had a lot of followers but somebody who perhaps kids at the right age or whatever reason.
Pete: How many unread emails do you have in your inbox?
Emma: Oh god, I wouldn’t want to admit to that, a lot. I Actually it took me a really long time to work out that I can put everything into folders. On my phone if I look now, there’s probably 30.
Pete: I’m going to ask you to screenshot the front page of your phone and is there anything you want to explain?
Emma: Probably a lot - I have a cracked screen to start with!
You know what, it’s pretty boring. I hide all the stuff and that’s pretty good. No, I’m clear. Oh, I see email is 54 today. Oh no that’s messages, oh that’s even worse. Oh, that’s bad that’s text messages. Nag mail is not on there so I don’t have to explain that. Oh no, I guess it is 59!
Thanks for taking the time to share your Happy Hands Happy Heart story with us Emma.
Pete here! So I've pulled out a few takeaways we learnt from Emma today:
Make sure you are passionate about your small business – whatever it is you make, bake, create or sell. A cliché but true. “There’s so much work involved in running a small business. It is much easier just to get a job anywhere in retail and just work and come home and not think about it. So, you’ve got to have a real passion for it otherwise it’s not going to be sustainable long term.”
You don’t necessarily need high investment to build a successful business. “Happy Hands Happy Heart has been a slow growth in terms of markets and that sort of thing because I’ve never got a business loan. I’ve never put a lot of capital in it. It’s just been growing organically because I didn’t want to put a lot of risk into it.”
Sometimes you have to leap into the unknown: Emma was struggling juggling the new business, working as a photographer and being a full time stay at home parent. When she decided to give up photography to focus on Happy Hands Happy Heart, the business flourished.
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