Liron Shebs is the creator of HappyLI, an Israel-based business that sells plush toys for babies and children. Liron and Jake hopped on a call to talk about her experiences starting and running HappyLI.
Jake: *nervously* Is it Lee-rON?
Liron: *laughing* Yes, Li-rON!
J: Okay, great.
How did it all get started?
J: Can you start off by telling us what your shop is called?
L: My shop is called HappyLI, which is a play on the word “happily.” It’s the word “happy” combined with Li, the first part of my name. I like it because it’s a word you know, but it uses a spelling “mistake” to create something new and playful.
J: How did you come to sell on Etsy?
L: I actually started my Etsy shop back in 2012, when I was working full time. I was working at HP (Hewlett Packard)—I’d been there for about 10 years—writing java code. I couldn’t really handle an Etsy shop back then so it didn’t take off. But about a year ago HP was merging with another company, and they were firing everyone—I mean like 300 people. I started to look for another job, going to interviews and that sort of thing, and I was actually offered positions. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt like I didn’t really want to do that anymore. I had done it for more than a decade, and I was kind of tired of it!
“I decided to give a chance to the artist in me and see how it goes.”
I decided to give a chance to the artist in me, try to make a living out of that, and see how it goes. I reopened my Etsy store about a year ago with plush toys, and this time I put a lot of time and money into working on it.
“It’s a whole different world than what I knew! But I’m learning and it is a process.”
I really enjoyed computer engineering, and I had a lot of good friends in that field, but being an artist was always a part of me. I’d always kind of done it as a hobby, and now I’m trying to make my dream come true and make a living out of it. It’s kind of hard because it’s a whole different world than what I knew! But I’m learning and it is a process. I’m working on it!
J: So obviously you have a lot of creative passion, and you mentioned some hobbies?
L: I have a lot of hobbies! I love to paint, to decorate my home (my home is very colorful), I give new life to old furniture and upgrade it, I do a little bit of sculpture and knitting, and obviously I like to sew. I love everything crafty. I’ve even done some carpentry in the past. If it’s crafty, I’m there. I can’t sing though!
“I like programming a lot, but I like to sew a lot!”
I feel like I’m kind of weird in that I have these two sides in me so strongly! Like, I like math a lot, I like programming a lot, you know. But I like to sew a lot! And I like to paint, and other artistic stuff like that. I do feel like my analytic side shows through in my dolls! I need the entire story to be complete when I create a character: they have to have a name, and they have to do something. It’s the engineering part of me—there’s a structure and rules—the whole story has to be complete.
J: That’s so interesting that every character has a full story. Tell us some more about the plushies themselves!
L: Right, like I said, I sell plush figures that I invent, design, and sew. Once I’ve invented a figure and it becomes a character with a story, I also create baby blankets, security blankets, and pillows. So I have this established bunch of characters that I work with all the time, and they evolve with changing colors and new characters. This is how my store has gotten bigger and bigger over time. I sell locally as well, which has added to the evolution of my products.
J: Can you describe your brand aesthetic?
L: Very colorful! That’s why I chose to make products for kids and not adults. Adults are kind of boring, right? They wear black and gray and boring colors. I also kind of like the nasty characters, like the ones that look like they’ve had a fight! I’ve discovered, though, that my audience isn’t really into that. They mostly like the cute ones, so I’ve been more focused on cuter characters lately. And of course, quality is very important to me, from construction to their backstories. I want people to be able to relate to them!
If I have this character, let’s say I call him Ohad (I give them Hebrew names, but on my Etsy site they have American names), I’ll make the plush toy. But then I’ll also make a baby blanket with the same colors, and then a security blanket, again with the same colors. I need to create a complete set! So if you’re buying a gift for a baby, you can also buy a gift for her older brother or sister with the same character. You can get a complete present for all of the children in a family and they will all of the same character with the same name. Customers love it! 90% of the time when someone comes to buy a present for a baby, they are so excited that they can also get a present for the other children.
Share the wisdom (please).
J: What was it like to create your Etsy shop the second time around? Being where you are now, would you have done anything differently when you were just getting started?
L: I don’t think I could have changed anything. And even if I could go back in time and talk to my old self, I don’t think I would’ve listened to myself! Opening an Etsy store was kind of natural to me as a computer engineer, sitting at a computer all day. But even though I put a lot of time and money into my Etsy shop, the sales didn’t really take off enough for me to make a living, so I started selling locally in places like craft fairs.
Only after going through starting and Etsy shop did I transition to local markets. I couldn’t have done it any other way. I needed to be there, in the place where I was trying to get my Etsy shop off the ground (and not really succeeding) to get to the point where I asked myself, “what’s next?” And what’s next was local markets. Each outlet brings a different audience and different customers. I’m still a new business and I’m still growing and learning every day. It’s part of the fun!
“Even if I could go back in time and talk to my old self, I don’t think I would’ve listened to myself!”
What about marketing?
J: So what kind of things do you do to promote yourself? What’s your marketing strategy?
L: I have a Facebook page, which I didn’t really use at first because I was indecisive about whether to write the page in Hebrew or in English. I knew I wanted to sell on Etsy, so I thought maybe I should keep the page in English, but when I decided to sell locally the issue resolved itself. Now I run the page in Hebrew, which is way easier for me. And a lot of people actually know me from Facebook! They see my stuff, see my videos, and call me asking to buy gifts. I also belong to a lot of relevant facebook groups, which gets a lot of exposure for my business. Plus I belong to a networking organization that helps me promote myself, both on Facebook and outside of that.
J: A networking organization?
L: Yes! I belong to a networking organization that’s very established, so I have a lot of peers through that. I’m connected with a lot of people who are also trying to make a living through their own businesses. It’s comforting to talk to others who are struggling as much as you are! It’s also very helpful because we work to promote one another by connecting each other with people we know. It’s a great support system, and it’s women-based—all mothers, actually! So I have this wonderful group of women around me who know what I’m going through and help me whenever I need it. Just last week I was sick, and everyone was immediately like “what can we do?” It’s so important.
“I have this group of wonderful women around me.”
When I was working at HP I had people around me all the time with my day-to-day friends at work. And of course, there was a steady salary. Now I don’t have that anymore; I’m on my own! It’s kind of scary, but it’s kind of fun also. I spent a lot of time working really hard and making a lot of money, and it’s not about the money for me right now.
“I’m on my own! It’s kind of scary, but it’s fun also.”
Your photos rock.
J: So you clearly know that photos are an important part of promoting your product, because your images are awesome. What is your process for taking photos for Etsy?
L: It took me a while to figure it out, actually. It was a really long and painful process, let me tell you. It took me a while to understand what makes good photography. I wound up finding this online tutorial “for dummies” that was literally like “Place your camera there. Place your product there.” I followed the tutorial step by step, and my pictures started to look better and better. Then I found an app called Fotofuze, which corrects brightness and white balance. So if you shoot your object on a white background, but in the photo it looks gray, it will make your background whiter. Sometimes if the color of the toys are off, I’ll use the Windows 10 editor, which is great for my basic editing needs.
“It took me a while to figure it out. It was really long and painful, let me tell you.”
J: Where do you take your photos?
L: I clear my desk, which is usually covered in fabrics and my sewing machine. I use a white fabric and hang it from the wall and drape it over my desk. I put jars behind the dolls to prop them up. It’s really important for the shots to have good lighting! I get great natural lighting just by opening my windows and curtains. Then I put my camera on the tripod and I’m set! I’ll take a handful of shots for each toy, then move over to the computer and edit them.
J: So before using Whatify, how did you determine which photos to use as your primary photos? L: I was kind of guessing, and asking friends and family. Most of them like the photos with simple white backgrounds, so that’s what I went with. I’d use photos with my kids as the 3rd or 4th photo on the listing. But according to my Whatify results, those images are actually more effective in some cases!
J: I mean, how could they not be with models like those. They’re really stinking cute. How did you actually find Whatify in the first place?
L: I like to try everything I come across, so when I heard about Whatify I liked the idea and wanted to try it! Even though my Etsy shop isn’t my main source of sales, I used Whatify’s recommendations for the listings that I do have. I can really appreciate the fact that you’re creating an analytical tool for Etsy sellers that is easy to use. The biggest thing is educating people about why scientific testing is valuable!
To wrap things up…
J: Can you leave us with some advice for other Etsy sellers who are just starting out?
“Go learn as much as you can, and meet people that have already done it.”
L: I would say go out and learn as much as you can. There are great courses out there, and they can really teach you how to run a business, manage facebook, marketing, everything. When you’re starting you really don’t want to spend money because you’re thinking, “I’m not making any money, why should I spend money?” But you almost have to spend money on learning, because even though there’s a lot of free stuff out there, it’s never enough. I feel like the free stuff is too shallow. It’s just not enough. Spend the money and go learn.
And meet people that have already done what you’re trying to do! It can be so helpful to make real-life connections. I have so many colleagues now who are doing similar things, and we can all get together and discuss what is working and not working for each of us. We’re sharing knowledge, and it’s great. I’m learning so much. And that’s something that doesn’t cost any money: meeting people and making connections with them—they will help you thrive.
“I found out that it’s really hard, but it’s really satisfying. I enjoy myself every day.”
Did you like this post? Tell us what you think! And be sure to check out HappyLI on Etsy! We love to feature our users in posts like this—if you’re interested in becoming one of our featured users, let’s chat.