The world of start-ups is a super exciting, innovative--and lucrative--place to be in 2015. This year, thousands will find their fortune in ingenious new tech businesses, marketing, software development, and... knitting?

When you think of the types of super successful start-ups raking in almost a million in revenue, knit socks, scarves and headbands may not be top of mind. Yet one Livermore, California mom has turned her crafty hobby into an $80,000 a month powerhouse.

Alicia Shaffer's unique perspective and unusual business strategy has certainly contributed to the astonishing success of her business, ThreeBirdNest.

In fact, it's made her online Etsy store the second-most successful business on the incredibly popular site, with its over 1.3 million active sellers.

Shaffer launched ThreeBirdNest in 2011, when her handcrafted headbands became a local hit. She told Co.Design recently, "I opened an Etsy shop, figuring I'd help pay for my kids' soccer and dance lessons to supplement the boutique's sales. I was recovering from the failure of a business I'd run selling baby products--handmade slings, carriers, and blankets." She's lost confidence in her entrepreneurial abilities after that business had gone bust during the recession, she said.

Three Birds Nest

From the 90 sales she made in her first few weeks on Etsy, Shaffer has grown her business to an average of 150 orders a day, resulting in $960,000 in annual revenue. She now has a team of 15 sewing moms to help meet the demand for her now 58-product catalog of handcrafted and embellished women's wear items.

Her experience on Etsy definitely isn't the norm.

Late in 2013, the online network of crafters released a report that revealed 65% of its sellers make less than $100 a year from their Etsy sales. Eighty-three percent of sellers at that time ran their business alone and of the remaining 17% who had help, only one-quarter had any paid staff. Most had recruited unpaid family and friends to help out.

So just what is about Alicia Shaffer that sets her apart from her fellow Etsy entrepreneurs?

It's her customer-centricity and social PR prowess.

Sure, a lot of brands pay lip service to stellar customer service, but few nail responsiveness, online user experience and loyalty to the extent ThreeBirdNest has.

Consider this: her company has no advertising budget. None. Yet Shaffer's business has amassed over 172,000 Facebook fans and almost 13,000 Etsy reviews in approximately 99,000 sales through that platform. She's also active on Twitter and Pinterest. Her social networks are active not only with product postings, but with conversation and responses to customer inquiries.

Shaffer also understands the power of influencer outreach, pitching her company to friends and industry contacts with blogs. She makes it a priority to ask her followers for input on designs, to find out what they really like and want. Customers receive coupons for their next purchase with each order. Responding to emails is a priority.

Even before she gets a chance to interact with a potential customer, Shaffer carefully considers the user shopping experience and tries to break down potential roadblocks to people discovering and enjoying her products. She's been quoted as saying, "A huge mistake I see is lots of shop owners list products by the name they've given it, like 'Juicy Frutti Tutti Garland.' No one's going to search for that." Instead, she's descriptive and uses languages people can understand, but Etsy's search engine can, as well.

These aren't crazy things, right? Yet they're unusual in that small businesses and entrepreneurs are often so busy trying to stay alive, they fail to prioritize user experience and customer service.

It may be difficult to justify your investment in social media and online PR, but Shaffer's incredible success is proof you should make the effort. She's learned to think like her customer--this isn't something people are just born knowing. She's actively listening and responding to their needs, across platforms, with almost Herculean effort for a sole proprietor.

It's an unusual strategy, to invest heavily in areas where it's typically difficult to properly attribute conversions and real revenue, but it's worked wonders for this knitting California mompreneur.

Published on: Mar 2, 2015
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