Morgan Wills of The Crafty Squirrel

When you come across someone who has been playing the long game, who has significant wins under their belt (or in this case, apron) yet who is modest, generous and supportive of those who others might see as competition, you know you've met someone special.

This is how I see Morgan Wills - of brands Morgan Wills and The Crafty Squirrel. We first met during my days in tourism marketing and today occasionally see each other at business or social events and of course on Instagram.

Morgan is someone who I see as being a a quiet achiever: someone who knows what she wants, works to her strengths without getting caught up in trends or what others are doing, and is willing to put the work in to get there (perhaps she won't agree, but that has certainly been my perception!). 

Morgan has been a finalist and a winner in the Commerce Ballarat Business Excellence Awards business awards; has sustained a niche store in a regional city that attracts visitors from across the country; runs a namesake boutique design label; has built a social community of 16,000 fans across Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest and is launching her first craft tour of Tokyo in May 2017.

I was curious to know how Morgan got to where she is now; what's worked - and not worked - for her in marketing; what challenges she has come across and what advice she has for others running their own business. 

So without further ado, meet businesswoman and craft queen, Morgan Wills...

What’s your background Morgan and how did you start your business? 

I have always been a maker, a crafter, a creator. My earliest memories are of wanting to make things – doll house furniture, textile items, fun things from bits and bobs I found around the house. At school my favourite subjects were always the art ones – right up to year 12 I did mainly art based electives. After school, I completed a Certificate of Interior Decoration, an Associate Diploma of Arts – Interior Design & Decoration and then went on to do a Diploma of Arts – Furniture Design & Construction. I worked in both of these fields both self-employed and contracted through Architects until I landed myself a job in event management for the Victorian State Government. I ended up working there for 12 years on big festivals and events and throughout this time I continued to make things as a hobby – predominately jewellery and clothing which I sold to various friends and colleagues and then when I took a year off on maternity leave with my daughter Kitty (now 12) I started to make things for her – baby blankets and dolls, and scarves for my husband Sam – mainly sewn textile items.

"I thought that perhaps I could have the occasional market stall and sell some of the things I was making. Morgan Wills was in business!" 

At the markets, I met retailers who were interested in buying my work for their stores and so I began to wholesale. I continued to sell at markets and then started to have stands at Life in Style which is a gift fair for retailers.

The business boomed and I had 80 stockists around Australia and New Zealand BUT it was hard to sustain. Much of my work is made out of upcycled and reclaimed textiles and sourcing and manufacturing everything myself, plus working 3 days a week and being a Mum was a lot! 

When I went on maternity leave with my second child I decided that I probably wouldn’t return to my day job but would continue to grow my business. I needed a studio shop! Ideally, I wanted to set one up where we lived in Seddon (which is in the western suburbs of Melbourne) but the leases were expensive and the commitment I would need to make in terms of time away from home were great (especially with two young kids) so we started to look at what kind of shop/house scenario we could buy. The search was long – we looked extensively around various inner city suburbs and regional Victorian towns. Ballarat had appeal – it was close to Melbourne, had great school options and was affordable. When we came across what is now the Crafty Squirrel HQ – we thought it was almost too good to be true! Six years later, we haven’t looked back! 

Can you explain what the Crafty Squirrel has become and some more about what it is? 

The Crafty Squirrel is the working studio and shop front of Morgan Wills (Me!). My working label is my name; Morgan Wills but when I was ready to open the studio shop I decided that I didn’t want to call it my name because that would be restrictive and a bit naff really! So, after much consideration I decided that I was definitely ‘crafty’ and that I’m also an innate ‘collector’ or ‘gatherer’ – so you may as well call me a bit of a ‘squirrel’ and be done with it! The Crafty Squirrel it was – the alter ego of Morgan Wills! LOL! 

"Every week I spend three days in my studio designing, making and creating and in the office managing social media, updating the online shop, packing and sending orders, ordering stock and paying bills and 3 days working behind the counter and in the store." 

It definitely keeps me out of trouble that’s for sure, that and the kids!

You’ve been running The Crafty Squirrel for five and a half years now - what is the difference now from the first year or two?

I was lucky enough that when I opened The Crafty Squirrel I already had an established business and lovely customer base – so I had an immediate target audience. Over the years, I’ve managed to build up a fantastic local customer base and get lots of visitors come to Ballarat from around Australia and overseas. When I look back at photos from the first couple of years I always think the store looks so empty! Since I opened I’ve been given so many treasures and squirrels which I have on display in the shop and I’ve also found lots of little bits and bobs in my own travels, so the store now looks more like a mini emporium!

You’re about to start running crafty tours of Tokyo, which is incredible! Can you explain how this idea came about?

I’ve always loved Japan. I think it started when I was a girl and we hosted a Japanese exchange student for 3 months. She gave us lots of cute little gifts and I was totally hooked. Fast forward all these years later and my favourite place to travel to is Japan. My favourite food is Japanese and I do a lot of business there sourcing many of the cute treasures I sell in the shop. 

I had the idea of running craft tours of Tokyo many years ago and like most ideas I have, it has taken a while to bring it all together given that I have quite a bit on my plate already! Needless to say, I will be running the first tours in May and September 2017 and then hopefully every year ongoing.

What have you found to be the best type of marketing you’ve done for your business?

I have been very lucky over the years to have had quite a bit of media press in various magazines and newspapers. This has brought waves of interested customers and like-minded crafty souls to visit me at markets, fairs and in the store.

"Recently I had my first little stint on TV as I was featured on Postcards on Channel 9 and that seemed to bring a whole new wave of visitors but generally it seems that social media (both Facebook & Instagram) seem to have been my greatest ongoing marketing platform in terms of promotion."

You have a very large, engaged and loyal following on Instagram. What does your structure look like for managing your activity on there?

To be entirely honest I can’t exactly tell you how I have built up my social media profile it has been quite organic in its growth. I tend to take photos and create posts when I am inspired to and I don’t follow any particular rules with regards to best times to post or posting particular things in general. I have to say I really enjoy using Instagram as I find it so visually appealing and inspiring. It’s also a really lovely community and I seem to have found lots of fabulous crafty followers who enjoy similar things to me which is really nice.

What type of content do you find works well on Instagram and what not so much?

In terms of content I try to mix up my photo posts with images of in store, behind the scenes and a little of what I love myself. I think it’s a good idea to have a mix so that my followers get to know me and perhaps feel some connection to the things I am making, collecting or selling.

"I am a visual person so I love seeing beautiful well executed photos on Instagram myself and so I always try to take the best image I can to represent whatever it is I am wanting to communicate."

And what types of marketing have you tried and found didn’t work so well?

Interestingly I haven’t had a huge lot of success from paid advertising I have done in mainstream magazines. I tend to gauge success of these sorts of things on how many people walk in the door and say – I saw you in this or that. Having said that though I have recently had a lot of new visitors to the store through my ad in a new little free monthly guide ‘Best of Ballarat’, it seems that this is reaching a slightly new audience that are either just finding out about the store now or have known about it and are inspired to visit as they now know where it is!

If you could give one marketing tip from your experience, what would it be?

"Spend time creating fabulous photographs of your own unique brand and product and then use these to showcase your business through every means possible – particularly free opportunities using social media. I think the better your images the more likely you are going to capture people’s attention."

What are some of the challenges you've experienced, or continue to, in running your own business?

Even though I have lots of help and a fabulous team of creatives around me - I am pretty well Chief, Cook and Bottle washer when it comes to managing most aspects of my business. I make lots of the things I sell, do all my own book keeping, stock ordering and management, social media and website management, packing and shipping online orders, merchandising in store, the list goes on and on. Challenges I have encountered over the years mainly centres around time and having enough of it to do everything I’d like to do and managing the business as it grows. There’s never enough time!

And what are your greatest rewards?

I absolutely love meeting like-minded visitors to the store, at the markets or through social media – hearing about what they like to make, collect or just getting to know them over time.

"The relationships and friendships that crafty women in particular forge over common interests are just so special. It’s like being part of a big fun gaggle of women who love sharing their creative passion over a laugh and a piece of fabric!"

What’s in the works for The Crafty Squirrel in the near future (I see you're starting crafty tours of Tokyo - wow!!!)

I think the craft tours of Tokyo have already taken on a life of their own! In terms of other aspects of my business – it really centres around the many ideas I have for new products I’d like to make, stock I’d like to source for the store and overseas travel I’ll need to do to accomplish that! 

A huge thank you to Morgan for the time she has put into her brilliant answers and for being so open with her business story to date. 

Check out her gorgeous, colourful images below and stay in touch with Morgan on Facebook, Instagram or explore more on her website