Interview: Leigh Helberg of Beansoup Aprons

by Sara Tams of sarah + abraham

I first came across Beansoup Aprons about two years ago when I was in the process of starting sarah + abraham and checking out other online  retailers selling handmade children’s items.  I’ve followed Leigh’s success over the years, and when I interviewed her recently, I was so delighted with all of the insider advice that she was happy to share… just what we’re all about here at Oh My! Handmade Goodness!

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and how Beansoup Aprons came about.

Hard to believe this, but I was a Television Producer. I moved to Los Angeles at the age of 24 to take on Hollywood, and I did for a bit, then the classic story takes hold. Met a man, got married, and next thing I knew I was pregnant. Being the perfectionist that I am, I was bound and determined to be the best stay-at-home-mom ever!

I was pretty good at the stay-at-home-mom thing for about a week, and then I slowly began to go nuts. I desperately needed something to do. I convinced my husband to buy me a sewing machine for my birthday because I’d always wanted to learn to sew, and I had all this time that needed to be filled, so why not?

I didn’t read the instruction manual. I sat down at the table and started to sew. No classes, no instruction, just my own need to create something. The first thing that I made her was a blanket. It wasn’t that cute, but it was enough to stir my creative juices and get me to try other things too.

By the time my daughter was toddling around, people were stopping me on the street to ask me where I had gotten her clothes, and the answer was thrilling… “I made them.”

What products does Beansoup Aprons offer?

At the moment we have 3 apron lines – Chef’s Aprons, Cobbler Aprons, and Overall Aprons. We are currently adding other products to our Beansoup Kids line including a magician’s cape complete with hidden pockets for wands and silkies!

How are your aprons manufactured?

I began by sewing the first 100 aprons myself.  It was exhausting.  Now all of the aprons are hand cut and sewn right here in Los Angeles by a group of gals that I could not do without!

At the moment all of the people who “work” for me are independent contractors.  My sewers are like me – a group of moms with their own business, one which I am happy to support.

I’ve often thought about adding non-paper goods such as T-shirts or pillows to my shop, but I always decide not to when I think about how different sewing is than printing stationery. Do you have any advice for someone who has a great idea for a handmade product, but they don’t want to do all of the production themselves?

Sewing is very different from printing and the like, and I often think, like you do, what if I added XYZ???  My answer to that is you can learn the business of anything.  If you ask around, you will find people who have sewers, and most of the time they’re happy to share their knowledge.  Ask, ask, ask!  That’s all I ever do.  I never know what I’m talking about, but I’m very good at finding the people who do.

You sell aprons directly to the customer through your website, and they’re also sold by several online boutiques and in stores throughout the US… what has your experience been selling wholesale vs. retail, and do you have any advice for someone who’s considering selling her products wholesale?

I have a personal relationship with everyone that I sell my aprons to. Whether they’re a store owner or an individual customer, they all get complete access to me.

What I can say to other business owners is don’t lose touch with your customers.  It is important to them that they know you and feel that you have a stake in their success.  As I got bigger as a company, others began convincing me that they could handle the sales side of things.  In the end, I lost sight of my customers, and I think that no matter your size, you should never do that.

I encourage people to do trade shows when they can.  This puts you and your product in front of buyers and helps you see their response to what you have created.

What have been the major turning points, obstacles, and/or lessons you’ve learned as you’ve grown your business?

Always trust your instincts. I have been in business for three years, and I have given a lot of advice in that time. I have always told people to avoid large rep groups… times are changing, and the old model doesn’t apply anymore. Think future.

Then what did I do? I went and hired a 20-person rep team.  They promised the moon and got me fewer stores than I was getting myself.  What it came down to was they didn’t know how to sell my product like I did.  Nor did they care to learn.  My aprons are not $19.99 Kiss The Cook aprons, and they should not be sold as such!  Needless to say, we parted ways.  Now I am once again focused on my sales and am looking to the future.

My online sales tripled this year, with no press, and it is abundantly clear that the advice I’ve given applies… think future.  The boutique stores that I have relied on for the past 3 years are all closing, and shoppers are getting more and more savvy online.  That is where I am putting my chips – in becoming a large presence as my own online retailer.

You’ve gotten some great press coverage including Everyday with Rachel Ray and Daily Candy Kids… do you work with a PR company?

As I mentioned, I have given a lot of advice… none as serious as do NOT spend $8,000 to have a PR Agent do what you can do for free!  All of the press that you see on my site, I have gotten myself.  No one knows how to sell your product like you.  A PR agent may have contacts, but there’s no reason you can’t get those on your own.  All you need is a telephone and the nerve to ask for the right people – the rest will take care of itself!  It comes down to personal relationships with people.  If you create them, there is nothing you can’t get accomplished.

What have your experiences been with marketing and advertising – what has worked well for you and what hasn’t?

I have always been a huge proponent of the mom blog. They have always been good to me, and I appreciate them all. They are the reason my line has done as well as it has.  Paying Google or Facebook or any of those to run an ad for you is pretty much useless. You might get a few click-thrus, but if your site is good enough, you are going to get those from a search engine, so what’s the use?

Do you have any other advice for someone who is thinking about starting an online business?

I designed my website myself, and although it is not great, it will do.  I have a product that people will specifically search for, which I think is  important.  If I just had T-shirts, I would never get found in a search engine.  So, my advice is to offer products that people will look for (and make sure they are so noted in your meta-tags).

  • http://www.5isthemagicnumber.blogspot.com tasha roe

    CUTE STUFF!! Your blog is great! Thanks for the inspiration.

  • http://biz-ymama.blogspot.com shawna

    Thank you for sharing!

  • Jill

    This is terrific–thank you!!

  • http://www.cabinessa.com Allison Hansen

    This was so enlightening! Thank you!

  • http://www.knottydaughters.com Knotty Daughters

    This is great info! We are experiencing some of these very things as I type!! Thanks.

  • Lety

    This is so interesting, I was looking for exactly this kind of information because even though I’m in the same situation, I wasn’t sure selling aprons will be a good business to try. Thanks
    Note: Does the fabric needs to be specially made for business purposes or it will be ok to use any kind from any fabric store?