Five Years as a Puppet Maker
It’s now been five years since I set myself up as a puppet maker. My business, Picture to Puppet, is a small Edinburgh puppet company making puppets and cuddly toys to order. Mostly from day to day I’m focused on the daily tasks of running the business, which is lot of fun mixed in with a fair bit of drudgery! But I thought I would take this opportunity to look back at the whole five years, and reflect on what I’ve achieved. Apparently about 90% of start up businesses fold within the first 5 years, so having made it through the first five years feels like a big achievement. The creative sector is a notoriously difficult sector in which to make a living, and the toy making sector in the UK has almost disappeared due to competition from China.
Because of this, people are often surprised to learn that I can make a living as a puppet maker in Scotland at all. In fact we are growing all the time. It started of as just me making puppets in my bedroom at night after I finished College. Now I work full time and have a lovely employee. We have a big sunny puppet making studio on Constitution Street. We get orders in every day and ship all over the world. We’ve made custom puppets and toys for films, TV ads, ventriloquists, local councils, educational resource companies, parents… the list is endless.
How have we made it work?
– Starting small
I set myself up as a puppet maker when I was straight out of college, and used to not making much money. This helped because it’s very difficult to make a lot of money at the start of a new business.
Keeping overheads low has been a big help. For the first 4 years I ran the puppet company from my bedroom, and worked as a puppet builder online. I ran the puppet company part time for 2 years before I went full time. During this time, I took on all kinds of classy jobs, including working in the pie van at Murrayfield and altering enumerable crotches in the windowless room behind Slaters.
– Using every scrap
Thankfully that is all behind me and there is now enough work for me to be a full time puppet maker and employ someone else of top of that. We have a lovely sunny studio to work in where people can drop by if they want to, and lots of storage space for all our materials. I am still very careful to use every scrap of fabric so that nothing is wasted. We even make our pattern pieces from bits of spam that come through the door!
– Being adaptable
I think our adaptability has been a big factor in our success to date; I’m always pushing myself to learn new techniques and experiment with different materials. Usually if someone asks me if I can do something and I don’t know how to do it, I say “yes” and learn how to do it as fast as I can! I’ve always been open to trying lots of different business models and strategies, and have built the business around the ones which have worked best.
– Core values
Despite this, I’m careful to ensure that my key values remain central to the business. These include environmental sustainability and having a healthy, happy and engaging working environment. For example, I won’t ever decide to outsource any toys to a sweatshop in China, because I believe that would be unethical. In addition, it would risk my role shifting my role from a predominantly practical one that I love to a largely administrative one that I would dislike. For me, keeping my job as a puppet maker enjoyable and stimulating is fundamental. Many businesses fold in the early stages not because they aren’t good, but because the people running them have rubbish time and decide to stop.
Having support from amazing people
And finally, I wanted to say a huge thankyou to everyone who has contributed to making Picture to Puppet a success! To every client who has put their trust in us to make their ideas into custom plush toys and puppets. Thankyou to everyone who has sewed away with me over the years. Thanks to Rob for all his ace web advise and designing our beloved mascot Phyllis! Thanks to the folk at Launch.ed and Business Gateway for all your help and advice. Thanks to my parents for renovating this amazing workshop. And finally thanks to my family and friends for believing in me and encouraging me every step of the way.
Here’s to the next five years of glorious Puppet Making!