When Holly Johnson was a new mother, she wanted meaningful and personal rooms for her kids, but found mostly mass-produced options. With creativity and a couple of credit cards, she launched Cheeky Monkey Home, an Etsy store that features unique décor items for children and adults.
“Gorgeous!” “Adorable!” “Oh, I love that!”
These are common reactions people have when seeing Holly Johnson’s Cheeky Monkey Home products on Etsy for the first time.
Headquartered in Belmont, Massachusetts, the mission of Cheeky Monkey is to bring joy to customers via small batch, locally made, durable and beautiful items.
It all began when Johnson was a new mother. She wanted meaningful and personal rooms for her kids, but found mostly mass-produced options.
“This hole in the children’s décor market ignited my creative determination to solve the problem,” says Johnson. “It was my inspiration to create fresh, unique home décor and accessories for children’s rooms.”
Her decorative pillows and accessories are constructed from a unique wool felt appliqué technique. She’s been so successful that she expanded into the adult market as well.
Additionally, Cheeky Monkey Home provides flexible work and training opportunities to refugee women through the company’s Sew@Home initiative.
“I am grateful to work with such committed, caring people whose loyalty and energy are extremely rewarding,” says Johnson. “I’m also proud of being a woman entrepreneur and the pursuit of artistry and commitment to a thriving business from a small-batch model, not giving in to mass-production or overseas manufacturing.”
Here’s how a couple of credit cards have been helping Johnson get her precious pieces into thousands of homes across the country.
Were there any barriers in the beginning?
I definitely faced some challenges! Creating products that are affordable to my customer but priced to cover my costs and pay sewers fairly was one.
We continue to add to the product mix, always looking for more items in a range of price points so that we can still make the high-end designs, but also offer an eyeglass case or tote bag for anyone who wants a smaller treat. I also have changed my design approach and taken advantage of supply savings as I am able to purchase in larger quantities.
Reaching my market was another issue. It’s a matter of finding customers, both through social media – mostly Instagram – and in stores.
Scaling operationally has been a special challenge because of limited space and resources. Until recently, I designed, hand-cut, stitched and shipped all of our products myself.
It became clear that we couldn’t grow unless I started to delegate much of the hands-on production work so that I could focus on design, sales and marketing. I addressed the need by developing Sew@Home, which allows sewers to work from their own residences.
How have you been using credit cards for the business?
While I have always tried to work creatively with the revenues I’m generating to fund the business, I’ve also used credit cards strategically. As a small business, cash flow from sales fluctuates significantly. It can be feast or famine, so it’s very helpful to have credit available for times when things are slower.
I have the Bank of America® Business Advantage Cash Rewards Mastercard® credit card and the Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card. With them I have made investments in sewing machines and equipment, larger supply orders that allow for quantity discounts and business travel expenses.
When entering into partnerships with a manufacturer, it is very helpful to use credit to front the costs of inventory, knowing that sales will soon offset that investment many times over.
The ability to order supplies (such as felt yardage and pillow fills) in larger quantities allows me quantity discounts that justify using credit when I know I can repay in short time. I knew it would enable a new level of production and efficiency, and the bill would quickly be repaid through sales.
I go in phases of using debt to finance parts of the business, and anticipate I will continue to leverage this option for a while during these years of growth and major change.
How have you been growing your business?
I still consider Cheeky Monkey to be a startup – expanding and changing all the time!
One important way that I took my business to the next level, though, was by submitting to the Mastercard Grow Your Biz Contest last year, which is done in partnership with Bank of America. I was thrilled to be named a finalist in the 2018 edition of the contest, which empowered me to talk with the panelist judges during the pitch night and afterwards for one-on-one consultations, which were invaluable.
Because of these mentorships, I gained significant confidence in my growth plans and developed new strategies to achieve my goals. Specifically, I have continued to pursue partnerships with local resorts, and I have just launched a line of canvas totes that will enable Cheeky Monkey Home to have a presence in a much broader selection of stores and appeal to a wider audience.
I’m especially excited about this venture from an operational standpoint because I have partnered with a local canvas company who is using their expertise and materials to produce the bags for me.
Together, we developed a special “tag-team” process where they build the bags to a certain point, and then my sewers and I step in to attach our felt appliqué designs, and then the canvas company completes the construction of the bag. It has been a great start to a new collaboration that has so much potential!
Do you have any regrets?I wish I had had the confidence to start my creative business earlier. It wasn’t until after working in nonprofits for many years and going to graduate school that I found the confidence to start out on my own. But I do think those years of experience and education have fueled and informed my work as an entrepreneur, so it is a great combination.
What is your advice to other entrepreneurs?
If you’re ready to truly grow your business, you have to delegate and let go of anything you do that is not part of achieving the future vision. Sometimes you have to scale up operations in anticipation of growth before you actually realize the results of your sales and marketing efforts.
Also, don’t be afraid to make mistakes because it is all part of reaching the bigger vision, and what you learn from them can contribute to a much richer and more thoughtful outcome.
Regarding credit, it’s is best to borrow when you know you can pay it back in the short run. Borrowing money is a risk, but you cannot grow your business without taking risks, and the key is to take calculated risks that lead to growth and increased sales. I believe that borrowing decisions that fund growth are generally good decisions.
The Bank of America content was last updated on March 3, 2020.