3/2/2021Small Business Spotlight
Crafting a Community: Avail Knit
Ashley Valsin-Luu, maker of Avail Knit, shares how she turned her love of fiber art into a small business, while donating 3% of all profits to local charities.
Head of Growth
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We're excited to present our newest Small Business Spotlight with Ashley Valsin-Luu, maker of Avail Knit, a handcrafted collection of beanies, rainbows, tees, and more. Ashley gives advice on conquering imposter syndrome and balancing a side hustle and a 9-to-5. Find Ashley on Avail Knit's Instagram or shop her website.
My name is Ashley, and I'm the owner of Avail Knit. I work with fiber art and crochet knit beanies. I do macrame art as well: macrame rainbows, and a bunch of other macrame wall hanging decor items. I would say it's an artisan type of business
How did you decide to become a small business owner?
I think I just fell into it. It all really started back in middle school, which was a long time ago. Basically my family and I would always go to the arts and craft stores, so Michael's or Hobby Lobby on the weekend, and we would each get one item to pick. One time, I think it was in eighth grade, I decided to get this loom, and basically a loom is a circular plastic-like material gadget with pegs on it, and it guides you in making a beanie. That's what I picked that day, and I ended up making a beanie that weekend and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. It was also around Christmas time, so I decided to make beanies as Christmas gifts since I didn't have a job at the time. I was in middle school, and that was my way of gifting presents to my family. I did that, and I continued each year.
Then fast forward to one of my first jobs. It was a running shoe store and I would wear my beanie during work. A bunch of customers would come in and comment about my beanies. I told them that I handmade them. Actually, one of my first customers was on the spot while I was selling her shoes at my job. She said, “I would like to buy your beanie.” It was so random and out of the blue. I was like, “You want to buy my beanie?” She said, “Yes, it's so cute.” I was like, okay, this sweet, nice lady wanted to support me. So I let her.
Then she told her friend about it, and she came into the running shoe store and she asked me to custom-make a beanie for her. That's where it started. It was just word-of-mouth from that one customer. My fellow employees started to support me, and my family members supported me, and it was just word-of-mouth custom-making beanies for people. Then fast-forward even more to college, I decided that I wanted to pursue it even further. That's when, I believe my senior year of college, I created a website in 2019, a website for it to start selling the beanies full-time. Well, not really full-time, but part-time with school and work and everything, but I started selling beanies there with a website. It was a small amount of sales, but I was still making sales.
I also wanted to find a way to give back and to contribute. Part of Avail Knit is that from every beanie purchase order, there was a percentage of sales from each order that goes towards materials and supplies to make beanies in order to gift them to children with cancer at Texas Children's Hospital. I believe it was 2019, that winter was the first year that I made a huge donation to them. It was not just me alone, it was from everyone who supported Avail Knit that made that possible. That was something that was really cool, and it felt really good to do that and be able to do that. That's what continued to, I guess, give me that drive to continue pursuing Avail Knit this past year, as well.
Wow. That's amazing. What was it like for you to turn something that was a hobby into a business?
I guess it was different, because when I first started off, of course it was just a hobby and it was something really fun just to do on the side, and I just loved being able to gift the beanies and gift them towards people. Then when I realized there weren't going to be a lot of people who were going to buy my beanies in the summertime, then I decided, okay, well I need to start thinking of some other products that still incorporated yarn and still incorporated that fiber artisan feel, so then that's when I tapped into macrame, and I made these macrame rainbows that people hang in their cars, on their walls. That was something that I started making, and I received a ton of sales from that.
I started as a hobby, but then I wanted to pursue it even further. In order to do that, I need to come up with new products that weren't just beanies, that it wasn't just seasonal to summertime. Then that pushed me out of my comfort zone to make new things such as the rainbows and all of that. Then I also make scrunchies and all of these other products that I make. I guess overall it's been an enjoyable experience. I still enjoy making all the products, even though it's not just a hobby, because it does bring me joy and it's something completely different outside of my nine-to-five job. It's kind of a completely different atmosphere where I get to be able to use my creative side when I'm not accounting for my daytime job.
So you're maintaining a nine-to-five while also doing this?
This nine-to-five is a recent thing. Right now I'm working at KPMG. I'm an auditor. Technically, it's an internship because I'm still in grad school, but once I graduate, then the goal is to start working full-time this fall in 2021. Currently, it's supposed to be nine-to-five, but really because it's busy season, I work almost until 10 to 11:00 every day. The past few weeks it's been difficult to balance Avail Knit and work. That's something that I've had to take into account and to try to figure out ways to be able to continue to pursue Avail Knit and maintaining all of the orders while I'm working, and how that will transition and affect Avail Knit in the future when I start working full time in the fall.
I was just about to ask you, how do you balance your nine-to-five and your side hustle, that being Avail Knit?
There's a Type A of person, and I wouldn't say I'm necessarily a full-on Type A person, but definitely being an accountant has kind of forced me to be more of a Type A person. Then also the fact that I have a limited amount of my free time after work to pursue Avail Knit and pursue anything else that I want to do outside of work. It's forced me to really prioritize my time and to block schedule things out. I wake up early, I probably wake up around 5:30 or 6:00, then I really prioritize health, side note, so then I try to get my workout in, and then I do my morning routine.
Then that's when I start checking my Avail Knit order emails, and I follow up on all the orders, and then I plan out what orders I'm going to make that day. When I plan out ahead, before work, during my lunch break, I usually start working on those orders. Then after I'm done with work, I finish the orders, and then USPS is super helpful in that they come to your house and pick up your packages. I've been utilizing that a lot lately, and that's been very helpful.
That’s a lot to handle!
Yeah. It can definitely burn you out. I've definitely noticed that the past few weeks as well with work being full time, because I just started this January, the first week of January, I definitely can feel that burnout. But the thing that's keeping me going is that I know that I want to continue to pursue Avail Knit. As you know, right now it's part-time, but the goal is to make that a full-time business. That's kind of what is keeping me motivated, knowing that if I keep working at it and I see the results... It's not always an incline in results, but if I see those results and I see that it's still bringing me joy in doing the work that I'm doing, then it's totally worth staying up later, waking up early, to get those orders sent out.
Definitely. Can you speak a little bit about how Avail Knit has grown since you started it?
Yes. Like I mentioned earlier a little bit, it was mostly just from word-of-mouth, and I guess it's still that way. It's still word-of-mouth, but it would be where I would get a sale maybe once a week, once a month, once every couple months, so it wasn't consistent at all. It was very sporadic. I also didn't have a set price for things. I would be like, oh, she's nice. Here's, it's $20 for this beanie. It just wasn't very rigid or organized at all. And then eventually throughout college, that's when I started to make more orders, and it was still purely beanies; it was still only around the winter time. Then it would work up to be a handful of orders a month.
Then towards the end of my senior year of college in 2019 to 2020, it was just very sporadic. I don't think it was until June of this past year, 2020, when I started making macrame rainbows, that those just started flying out of the door. I had so many orders with that. Then I started creating shirts with every season: Thanksgiving, fall colors, and Christmas colors. I was just really pursuing Avail Knit a lot at that point. I would say from this past year and this past summer, I would say that that was really the starting point where I could see this being a full-time business one day and not just a part-time thing. I would say that the past six, seven months has been the most drastic difference from day one.
What would you say to other people who are also looking out to grow their business like you have?
I would say just to start, just start it. In the community space of getting to know a bunch of other small business owners or people who want to start a small business, I think, yes, it's good to do research and to prepare for your business, but I think sometimes people, at least a lot of people that I've gotten to know, they're afraid to start their small business because they want to have everything perfect and everything outlined and ironed out. But I don't think that there is a such thing as having a perfect business or a perfect small business, especially when you're starting off. It's just so much trial and error, and I think it's just best to do as much research as you can, but don't try to have a standard or wanting to it to be perfect before you're able to just dive in.
It's all about taking that first step, and then you'll make a mistake and you'll learn from it. You'll continue growing from those mistakes. I think honestly, if someone would have given me that advice, then I would have probably started pursuing it fully a lot sooner than just this past year, because I think I might've been able to be even further than I am right now, but that would be my advice is just not to wait for that perfect moment but to responsibly just go ahead and start and make that first step.
What was it like for you in those beginning stages of your business when you were just starting out?
I would consider myself fully invested this past year, around summertime in June. I would start there. At that time, I would say I was excited, but I was also nervous because I had a lot of feelings of imposter syndrome, and I would feel like why would anyone want to buy this product from me? They could probably get it from someone else who is making macrame rainbows.
I struggled a lot with imposter syndrome, and I felt like I don't have my close group of friends. There isn't anyone else who is pursuing a small business at the moment, so if you don't have a community to start off with, I feel like you can feel like you're not on the right path because you're pursuing something completely different than the norm. I was struggling with that and wondering if I was wasting my time pursuing this, and that I should be focused more on school or if I should be focused on work and my career, or the traditional career. I struggled with that, with imposter syndrome of why would anyone want to buy my products.
Those are the two main things I struggled with, but I think I have a pretty good handle on those things. I've grown in the community, the small business community, and that definitely has helped a lot to be able to relate to other people and to understand that I'm not alone. Then with imposter syndrome, I think that comes with just having to have confidence in yourself, in the business, and in what you believe in and what you see your business potentially becoming.
I know you mentioned the small business community. In what ways has that helped you as an entrepreneur?
One, it has helped me with my confidence, as well, being able to see other small businesses to see where they started off from and to see where they're at now, and to see that it is possible to have a small business such as mine or similar to mine and be successful. Obviously, yes, that has definitely helped. Then just being able to communicate with one another and jump ideas off of one another, supporting each other on social media platforms, that has been very helpful. But the most important thing I think, or the most motivating thing is to see another small business thrive and grow and see them be successful, because it only gives me motivation, encouragement to keep pursuing my business and to hopefully one day be as successful as I see myself and the business being one day.
Are there any people in particular who you have found especially helpful?
Any particular people. Let's see… Have you heard of Jordan B. Dooley?
No, I haven't.
She has a podcast, and she has a book out, and she has maybe three different Instagram accounts tailoring to specific needs. But she has definitely helped me by encouraging me by listening to her podcasts, definitely has encouraged me a lot and has motivated me when I feel down about my small business or with battling with comparison, because I don't think it's good to compare myself necessarily to other small business owners, but it is good to use other small businesses as... I guess I'm trying to say that I don't want to necessarily compare myself to other small business owners. If they're succeeding, I don't want to feel bad about myself about, oh, I'm not there yet. Why am I not there yet? It's more of, “Wow, I'm proud of them for being there,” and it's motivating for me to get there one day.
Jordan Lee Dooley, she just speaks very well to the right type of audience, which is a lot of small business owners and homemakers. She's been very motivating and encouraging in that aspect. And then I think her name is Allie Designs. I came across her on TikTok, but she has an amazing small business, and she is just running the show and she's doing amazing things. She has provided a lot of tips on how to market on social media and packaging ideas and branding ideas and all of this. There are definitely many other small business owners out there that at the top of my head I can't think of, but definitely utilizing platforms or podcasts, and just following other small business accounts on Instagram or TikTok has been very helpful.
What advice would you give people who are also trying to balance a nine-to-five and being a small business owner outside of that?
I would say really, one, it's difficult, because you're giving it your all and your effort in your nine-to-five job. Then the time that you have left, it's difficult to allocate that time to pursue your small business. Right now, I'm not married and I don't have kids. I can't imagine balancing what I'm balancing right now when, in the future, when I hope to be married and have kids. I can't imagine that at the moment, but what I do right now is just really organize my time. I have a journal and I block out each time, when I'm going to wake up, when I'm going to work out, when I'm going to read, when I'm going to work, and when I'm going to focus on Avail Knit. I block out all of the times throughout my day so I can efficiently prioritize everything in the timeframe that I give myself, if that makes sense.
Yeah, that definitely makes sense. Is there anything that you want people who are listening to know about you or your business that we haven't already covered?
I mentioned that the beanie side of Avail Knit, that we make donations to Texas Children's Hospital during the wintertime, because the hospitals are really cold. I never battled with cancer, but I just spent a lot of time at Texas Children's Hospital for other health reasons, so I know what it's like to be in the hospital and especially during the holiday time when it's cold in there, and you just want to be around your family and surrounded by friends. I know that giving those beanies to them means so much, because it's a handmade gift directly towards them. I've been fortunate enough to meet some of the children and their parents, and they definitely have loved that and that support.
Another organization that Avail Knit supports is called Mercy House Global. It's a nonprofit organization. They rescue women and children from sex trafficking situations from all around the world, but they have houses in Nairobi, Kenya, and when they rescue those women and children, they house them, feed them, educate them, and provide them fair trade jobs. Three percent of every other sale besides beanies, macrame rainbow shirts, all of that, three percent of each sale goes towards Mercy House Global. That's something that's really important to me.
That's incredible. Do you think that these nonprofit contributions help motivate you?
It definitely does. I chose both for a reason. I prayed about it and stuff, but those two are the two businesses or the two nonprofits that I wanted to donate towards. I definitely feel like it motivates me even more to grow my business, because it’s benefiting these nonprofits such as Mercy House Global and being able to gift the beanies to the children at Texas Children's Hospital. It's such a great feeling and it brings me a lot of joy, and I want to be able to bring meaning towards people's purchases. When they purchase something, I make sure to write that note to let them know that, hey, your purchase matters. You didn't just buy a cute rainbow to hang in your car, but you bought a cute rainbow and you are helping feed someone in some other part of the world. That's something that's really important to me to connect people to these organizations and to make people more mindful about their purchases that they're making.
That's amazing. If people do want to support you, where can they find you online?
I have a website. It's availknit.com. I also have a Instagram account, which is @avail.knit. I'm primarily on Instagram, which is avail.knit. I have a TikTok, which is slowly growing, and that’s also @avail.knit.
Do you have any parting words before we close off?
No. I just want to say thank you. Thank you for reaching out to me and for wanting to interview me, and I really appreciate it. I look forward to following along your journey and reading everyone else's small business stories and their adventures and successes, as well.
Thank you so much, Ashley. It was great talking to you.
Thank you. It was nice talking to you, too.