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How a Co Armagh designer found a niche and built market-leading brand on Etsy
Niamh McCarthy founded her now award-winning Niamh Designs just five years ago
In 2018, Co Armagh entrepreneur Niamh McCarthy gave herself a six month runway in order to allow her first foray into the daunting world of self-employment to take off. It was a blind leap of faith. She loved fashion and textile design; she studied that very topic at the University of Ulster.
Stocked with some already acquired materials and a modest credit union loan, Niamh jumped head first into entrepreneurship, creating the now award-winning brand, ‘Niamh Designs’.
That loan was used to buy an embroidery machine which became – and still is – a key component in her embroidery business.
Brimming with creativity, Niamh was ready to go, but – on paper at least – she had little to no business acumen. Her father, who runs his own online furniture business, was – and remains – a great sounding board.
Niamh has learnt her own lessons along the way and we caught up with the 28-year-old to discuss how she went from an entrepreneurial novice, to that of 2023’s Young Business Woman of the Year, which she modestly proclaimed as “the greatest achievement of my life”.
Before jumping head first off the entrepreneurial diving board, Niamh was well versed on e-commerce.
“I was very into Vinted and eBay, so just selling old clothes and stuff. I actually always say that to people; you would be really surprised how much you can learn from reselling your own items online.
“If you were to sell something on Vinted or eBay, you're learning how to take a good picture, how to write a good title, you're learning about customer service, how to reply to people quickly, and how to package and post something.”
Niamh started her business in her parent’s garage in 2019, converting that space into her studio. Small and humble beginnings but lean – something she does not underestimate four years down the line.
“From the very first day I had to start selling because there were no savings. I really give myself six months and I said if it doesn't work in six months, then that's it.”
“I think it probably was mad at the same time. But I just remember thinking to myself, I don't care if I make 50p a week, this is what I want to do and I'm just going to make it happen. But for me, to stay creative I needed to run a business.”
Niamh describes it as mad, probably because she felt she had no business qualifications, or didn't study business, but she was on a personal fast-track mission to learn.
“I was literally just sitting on YouTube for hours learning. Learning SEO (Search Engine Optimisation), how to grow an Etsy business. That’s why I went with Etsy as I didn’t have enough experience to run my own website.
“There are people who have successful Etsy businesses all over the world but there was no one I was looking up to in Ireland, or even the UK – it's mainly America. So for me, I thought, there’s bound to be an opportunity here?”
Needless to say, there was an opportunity. Those six months came and went and the business has evolved, just as internet trends in the last few years have too.
Niamh Designs started out embroidering family trees and crests but those were fraught with challenges, especially around names and the length of time each individual piece required.
Now, after a little bit of research, 90% of Niamh’s business comes from the US through Etsy – in particular, Americans who want embroidered bridal jackets. In 2022, Niamh Designs shipped to all 50 states.
What prompted Niamh’s desire to pivot? Well, the small issue of a global pandemic really jolted her, admitting it was a tough time for her. Thankfully, her worries did not have to extend too far beyond her own future, being as it was, a sole operator at the time.
“We had a really tough time during COVID, like lots of businesses. I was saying, ‘God, is this the beginning of the end?’
“Fortunately, I had a friend who worked in Craigavon Hospital in the children's unit and all their scrubs were getting mixed up. And she had asked if I could create a rainbow patch with the NHS worker’s name on it.
“I made a batch of 60 and then donated them to the children's unit there. I put a picture up on Instagram. Oh my goodness, that was me for the whole of lockdown. I was creating these rainbow patches with NHS names on them and sold them across England; lots went to Scotland and that's what kept me afloat during lockdown.”
While it’s still a business pretty much in its infancy, pivoting and reacting to trends has become part of the norm for Niamh. There’s were being lean pays dividends.
“The amount of times we've just been like, ‘right, this isn't working anymore, back to the drawing board’. And I'll never fear the business closing down now. I just know that we can make it happen.
“It's kind of the beauty of being a small business, we can react so quickly to trends. If I see something on social media, I’m like ‘right, we'll get on the machine this afternoon’. And we'll get the design up on Instagram. Whereas, if you're in a big company, you know, that type of thing takes months.”
Niamh credits her rapid rise to social media, with a nod to Instagram. Like a lot of businesses in the early throes of kickstarting their ventures, Niamh leant heavily on the power of social media.
“Whatever you put on social media you were getting a sale from,” says Niamh who now prides herself – and the business – on the fact that people are coming and finding her directly on Etsy.
“If you're in Sydney, or if you're in Texas, and you're getting married, you're going to come across me at some stage.”
And that reach has all been done without an investment in paid-for ads.
“Our designs, they’re completely wacky and completely out there but do you know what? People stop and look at it. People know that I'm the person to go to if you want an embroidered jacket, because if I can do something that crazy, you can do the simple stuff too.”
Niamh credits her success to the fact that customer service “has always been number one for me”.
“It seems mad now but if you wrote to me at four o'clock in the morning, there's a good chance you would have received a reply within 10 minutes. Because I know that that's the time that people in California tend to be online and they always seem to respond at that time. So, for the first two years, definitely, people were getting a reply that quickly, because that means so much to them when their big orders are coming through.”
But it’s not sustainable, especially for a solo entrepreneur, which Niamh is the first to admit, and has taken steps to streamline the process. Having two extra pairs of hands also helps. Almost five years in and Niamh Designs now comprises of a team of three. Megan and Caoimhe have brought business admin qualifications to the fold and are really helping drive that growth.
“I'm constantly trying to make things more streamlined and things do get easier but there's always something that goes wrong, or someone always orders last minute, and I'm sitting there following a package that I know has to get to Texas tomorrow because the bride's getting married in two days time. I think they'll always be an element of that but now I’ve dealt with it so many times you know what to do now”.
The company hit a big revenue milestone last year; an indicator that Niamh’s blind leap of faith has paid off.
“We've been at the stage where we've had absolutely no orders, and we thought the whole thing's closing. And then we've also been at stage where, like, last August, I had so many orders come in that I thought I was going to have to close the business because I couldn't cope with the demand.”
At the moment, the main bulk of that revenue (90%) comes through Etsy, with 5% done through Not on the High Street and the remaining 5% done through her own website. Niamh’s goal is to push more sales through her own Shopify-powered website.
That’s where her ever-developing knowledge of SEO will come in. Niamh currently uses the services of a website called Marmalead, which is specifically tailored to Etsy SEO. Pinterest has been a huge help in driving traffic to her website, but that is a work in progress.
Content is something Niamh wants to get better at but being dyslexic, writing can prove challenging. Niamh knows the beauty of playing to her strengths and she has always looked at dyslexia as a strength more than a weakness.
“There are loads of positives; one of the things is that you're really creative. I know that I'm never going to write content so I've just stayed away from it. I'm at the stage of the business where I just know how valuable my time is and what I’m good at but I'm not frightened to just go and get the right people to show us the best way of how to do things.”
Is Niamh happy and content to continue as she was? Or are there bigger things on the horizon?
“We're going for it. We're getting to the stage where we have competitors. As annoying as it is, you're saying, ‘we must be doing something right here’.
“At the minute, we are the market leader for embroidered bridal jackets in the world, and you know what, that's not all we want to do. I would love to grow the team more. And we'll just constantly keep growing and pivoting because we love the challenge of it.”
For anyone contemplating starting a business, Niamh is steadfast in her belief that finding a mentor, or a network of like-minded individuals, is invaluable.
“In my business, at every single stage, you're always facing a problem, or one barrier which is why it’s so important to talk to people, to find mentors in your life.
“Being an entrepreneur, those first two years, when I was by myself, it was really lonely. And it can be, you're just talking to yourself, you could go mad. When you attend networking events, when you walk into that room, and as soon as you meet another entrepreneur, it's just like, there's that instant connection. And you could sit there for hours and hours on, it's almost feels like therapy or something.”
Fortunately Niamh has had her dad to lean on for advice.
“He's been a massive influence and a massive help to me starting the business because there's so much that's involved in running the business; the people managing side of it, the cash flow side, and then you've got your ideas. He’s just been a really fantastic sounding board over the past four years. I definitely don't think I would be here if it wasn't for him and my mum.”
While Niamh harbours ambitions for growth she believes it can be achieved online, with no plans, for now anyway, to open up a bricks and mortar store.
When she’s not at work, the intrepid go-getter enjoys working her way through her bucket list – between spending a week exploring the New York cityscape and dreaming of a life in sunny Australia.