Growing up with an engineer as a father, Robyn Bradley was encouraged to have an analytical mind. Robyn’s shop, Handmade in La Conner, Washington, is the result of a lifelong curiosity for how things work. Her love for aesthetics, combined with her passion for crafting things led her to grow her hobby into a successful retail store and manufacturing business.
Robyn did a little bit of everything but was especially handy with crafting
Even when Robyn was working full time, her friends and family knew that if they wanted anything handmade, she’d be excited to give it a try. ‘They’d call and say ‘I want a purse that’s like this, can you make it for me?’ I’d say, sure, let me figure it out – it’ll be $40! I like discovering how things work. I was always making candles or tote bags or pillow covers – anything that I could make with my hands.’
Robyn was never content doing just one thing – she liked variety in her workweek too. Before starting Handmade, she ran a tile store, worked in medical records and was a barista amongst others. ‘I like to have a bunch of random odd jobs. I’ve done a little bit of everything!’ She also went to culinary school and got her degree in photography. But when 2008 hit, she was laid off and left without a job.
Looking for a way to make ends meet, Robyn fell back on her skills as a craftswoman
‘I didn’t know what to do, so I thought I’d try and make my little side hobby into more of a business. I’d always focused on making natural products, reusable products, upcycled things. So I started with a very loose mission: to simply create useful things that made more sense for the environment and our bodies.’
When looking at all the various products she had made for herself and her friends over the years, one area where she saw a possibility for a business was in skincare and home products. Robyn had recently bought some expensive face cream from Nordstroms, but when she used it her face started to burn and turn bright red. ‘I thought oh no, what is it that I am reacting to? And when I read that list of ingredients, it was just a bunch of chemicals. I thought, there has to be something better, why was this so expensive?’
Robyn tried making her own face creams and skin products
When it worked, she researched her friend’s skin conditions and made custom skincare products for them, too. ‘I find it so exciting to fill a need for somebody. Like if my friend has eczema and they can’t find anything that works, I do some research and I make a natural serum. I love that I’ve been able to create something that helps, just by researching.’ She started blending and creating, but as her friends and family kept telling people about her products, her home-based side business grew and grew.
Robyn thought she might need to rent a bigger production space. Living in a sharehouse, she felt guilty taking over the kitchen all day. ‘Originally, I had thought I was going to need a regular job too and maybe would do craft fairs on weekends. But it turned out better than I could have ever expected.’
When she started looking for a workspace, she dreamed about renting a small retail space, too. As things progressed, she had the bright idea of combining the two. ‘I thought, why would I open a store and then go stand in there all day, then I would still have to go and make everything. Why not combine the two things?’
So Robyn opened combined retail and workspace simply to make her workday more efficient. But when people came into the store and saw her making the products in person, they became invested in the process. They loved seeing their products being made – there was no question that everything in the store was made from scratch. The dual retail and workspace was a winning combination.
Her previous diverse work experience served her well as a small business owner
‘I feel like a combination of all of the jobs I’ve had have been so incredibly helpful as a small business owner. I have to do social media posts and so photography is super important, I designed a brand new retail store where my design classes helped a lot.’ Her wide range of interests and experiences also ensured that she didn’t get stuck in a niche. While her home and skin products are very popular, she doesn’t limit herself to just making those things.
‘I’m open to change and I think that that’s something that has made me successful. I can see self-care is huge right now, so I’ll decide to do some bath salts and hand creams. Maybe next year, it’s going to be kids products or baby stuff or men’s grooming.’ Being open to pivoting and adapting has helped Robyn see areas that could be successful and move towards them, regardless of if they ‘fit’ with her current range. If she can make it, she can sell it.
Robyn couldn’t help but feel a sense of imposter syndrome
‘I have always struggled with anxiety and self-doubt. I’m not good at being at the forefront of anything, because I am shy’. Sometimes, a small business owner’s biggest battle is their own internal monologue. As soon as Robyn committed to opening a real brick and mortar, the fear set in.
‘I had two people that were very close to me tell me I couldn’t do it. Things were just starting to pick up. I was so heartbroken; there were two ways I could have gone. Either agree and give up or to treat it like a wake-up call.’ Robyn managed to pull herself out of the pain and go with the latter. The comments had set a fire under her to prove them wrong; she realized she had been relying way too much on everyone else’s opinion.
Robyn worked hard to push herself through feeling nervous or scared and find the strength within herself to continue
‘It’s definitely been the hardest part of being a business owner. It’s not something that never really goes away. I feel like it’s only been in the past couple of years that I’ve had success really overcoming my own demons. And I’ve been a business owner for over 12 years.’
These comments made about her potential was the turning point for Robyn. She made a conscious decision to prop herself up, instead of relying on others. She kept telling herself ‘I am actually going to be able to do this! It’s about being stubborn and saying, you know what, I’m going to prove them wrong’. She decided from that day forward to take any negative comments and turn them into a fire. ‘You know what, watch me! Now I have to do it just so I can not only prove to you, but I can prove to myself that I can.’
Robyn’s dedication paid off: now, some of her handmade products have been picked up by larger department stores. You can find some of her products in Nordstroms – the very store where she bought that first expensive face cream that set her off down this path in the first place.
Trusting and believing in herself was the hardest part of being a business owner for Robyn
All that self-work has helped Robyn to create a thriving business and she’s now confident in taking risks. She now finds herself excited to jump at opportunities, rather than weighed down with the insecurities of earlier years. ‘My landlord called during the pandemic and asked if I knew anyone looking for a new retail store. Without really thinking I said ‘oh my gosh, me! I want it! He asked if I was sure and I realized I was super sure.’
So during a year when many businesses struggled to keep the doors open, Robyn took another big risk and opened a new store called Winston’s General. Winston is one of her dogs – her other dog, Henrietta, has her own dog care range of shampoos and balms that are now stocked in Urban Outfitters. She imagines Winston as more of a businessman. He inspired her to open a general store that stocks food items, gifting items and plants. Winston’s, against all odds, is doing incredibly well. ‘I had somebody come in the other day and say ‘well it looks nice, but you’re not going to survive the winter here.’ I’ve gotten to a point where I can respond ‘no, I am going to be just fine, thank you for your concern. I own another very successful business in town. I know what I’m doing. It’s definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done – but it’s also the proudest I’ve ever felt!’
Having overcome self-doubt and imposter syndrome, Robyn is optimistic and looking forward to the future – with her two businesses!
Robyn is the founder of Handmade. She crafts simple yet high-quality products by hand and shares them both with her local community and across America through wholesaling to Nordstroms and Urban Outfitters.