In the Small Business Spotlight: Debs Slater - designer/adventurer based near Blackburn, invites a behind-the-scenes peek into her brand of laser cut wood and acrylic gifts inspired by the great outdoors!
Tell us a bit about yourself
Hey! I’m Debs, and I live in a little village just outside Blackburn with my husband, in a chaotic mess of a home that we’ve been renovating for far too long.
I’ve loved making things for as long as I can remember, took a degree in Graphic Design, a Masters in Children’s Book Illustration and get excited for the outdoors (mainly hiking & camping), documenting life in photographs, beautiful coffee-table books, mid-century modern decor, plant-based cooking and strategy-based board games.
Describe your business
I create under the name ‘of Alp & Ash’ and make laser-cut products in a workshop at the bottom of my mum’s garden (which is conveniently located only two streets away from where I live!)
My Contoured Coasters are aimed at those that love adventuring in the UK as they depict the most popular hiking spots, and I’ve recently introduced map art to allow customers to select their choice of location (in the UK) to be recreated in wood and acrylic.
What inspires you?
I’m mostly inspired by my adventures outdoors. The idea for my Contoured Coasters came about whilst I was undertaking a personal challenge: to hike all 214 Wainwrights in the Lake District to mark the tenth anniversary of my dad’s passing.
All that time spent studying maps during my challenge gave me the idea to recreate popular hiking areas in coaster form, with blue-tinted acrylic to represent the lakes and tarns.
Why did you decide to start a business?
Bad bosses! Not all my bosses have been horrendous, but the majority have. The last terrible encounter I had, working for a startup in Toronto, was the last straw for me. I came home to England vowing I’d never work for anybody again, used my savings to buy a laser cutter, and then had to think up something to make with it!
Has the direction of your business changed over time?
My products have definitely changed since I launched. The first products I designed were wedding frames, Christmas decorations and matchbox-style greetings cards that weren’t at all related to my business name. Some of them can still be found in my Etsy shop, but since developing my coasters I’m trying to be more conscious of my brand, so all the products on my website are now related to the outdoors.
What challenges have you faced as a small business owner?
I think the hardest thing about being a small business owner is having to wear all the hats, at least until you can afford to outsource some jobs. I particularly struggle with marketing as I’m not confident enough to shout about my work, and I’m also much more excited about the design stage of the process; when it comes to repeatedly manufacturing the same products I struggle to stay motivated.
I’ve faced many challenges during production too. My coasters took quite some time to prototype and even now the focus of the laser or the thickness of the acrylic can throw some things out. It’s a constant learning curve, and I’m always trying to think of ways to improve the process, but I’ve come a long way since I first started.
What's the most rewarding aspect to running your own business?
Not having a boss, a tiny commute to work, being able to time my lunch to align with Neighbours ;) Top of the list though is the fact that people are parting with their money to purchase something I’ve made. Regardless of how many meltdowns I may have had in the production stages, popping a set of coasters in a box and packaging them up for someone is an amazing feeling.
Feedback is also wonderful to receive, especially when a customer tells me that their dad loves their coasters, as I’m pretty sure my dad would have loved them too :)
What advice would you give to new businesses that are just starting out?
If you can afford to outsource a job in an area you’re not skilled in, do it! Also, use social media as a tool to inspire you and to connect with other business owners, rather than to compare yourself to other sellers.
You will always find people that are more successful than you are on the internet, but it’s important not to let this put you off your own journey. You’ll never truly know the backstory to these businesses... they could have been working on their craft for years longer than you have, have had more money to invest than you, got lucky with a marketing opportunity, etc.
Focus on your own work and one day you’ll be that super successful business that somebody just starting out is in awe of! (This is definitely something I have to remind myself of.)
What's next for your business?
This is a question I wish I knew the answer to! I know I definitely need to get the word out as I’m still not where I’d like to be in terms of sales. I’m also hoping to add more products where I can outsource the manufacture.
My coasters are extremely labour-intensive to make, which means I can’t sell them in shops and that makes it harder to scale the business up to where I’d like it. I’d love to get drawing again, and come up with some products featuring my illustrations.
I also have some other business ideas that aren’t related to ‘of Alp & Ash’ at all, and will be exploring those this year too. I’m excited to see where my journey takes me, the opportunities are truly endless when you’re creating your own career path, and that’s one of the most incredible things about it!
Shop for 'of Alp and Ash' products - click through images to see more: