“A little sparkle never hurts!” When it comes to party supplies, Jessie Senese, owner of Shop Sweet Lulu sure knows a thing or two. After starting her business out of her house, a basement stock full of party products, Jessie had trouble reaching customers as this was pre-Facebook and pre-Blogs. With little interest from customers, she took a break, but with the launch of Etsy later on, she jumped back in and went full-fledged with her shop. Building it from the ground up, Jessie’s shop has now been recognized by HGTV, Better Homes and Gardens, Food Network, and so much more! Read on to find out more about Jessie’s inspiring journey in this exclusive feature photographed by Stephanie Pana.
What’s your best piece of advice for young entrepreneurs? What should everyone who is thinking about starting a business know?
I have an art print in my office that reads, “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.” It’s a quote by (13th century poet) Rumi that holds so much truth for me.
You need to start with something you love to do. If you don’t have a passion for what you’re doing, you’ll never be able to commit the time and energy required to make that venture successful. Starting your business from the ground up means putting in countless hours, wearing many hats, and exhausting all of your resources. You can’t just have an idea and think “hey, that’s a great way to make money.” Nope, you better love it.
Has party planning and decor always been a passion for you? What were you doing prior to owning Shop Sweet Lulu, and what journey did you take to get to where you are today?
I would say that party SUPPLIES were always a passion for me. I always loved anything paper, from office to craft supplies. I hoarded stickers and stationery as a little girl. On weekends I would beg my parents to take me to either the craft store or the office supply store – I spent countless hours poring over spiral-bound ledgers and memo pads. And that’s still pretty much where you’ll find me on weekends. Last week I went out in a snowstorm to buy gold paper clips because I ‘needed’ them!
After Olivia was born, planning her parties was a creative outlet for me. Plus, we didn’t have any money so I just had to figure it out! For her first birthday, I sewed her party dress, made the invitations, crafted a candy centerpiece for the table, and baked the cakes – a chocolate ganache with royal icing violets and a three layer pink ruffle cake, all ripped from the pages of Martha Stewart Baby Magazine (I still have those dog-eared issues of the magazine on my bookshelf today). I loved putting together all of the details to make the party come together. I had so much fun that I thought it would be a great idea to sell the party goods themselves. I read some books on writing a business plan, got a license, and stocked my basement full of products. But this was pre-facebook, pre-blog; pre-life-as-we-know-it. Armed with my little paper catalog and no one to sell to, I soon closed up “shop”.
Over the next decade, I was lucky enough to stay home with my kids (Olivia was joined by a brother, Jack, in 2002). I kept myself busy during the day with sewing projects and estate sales, crafting, and doing volunteer work at the kids’ schools and at the local children’s museum. I was always taking a class or trying something new…I could never sit still for more than two seconds. I even got my realtor’s license during that time (I sold two houses and called it quits. Selling houses was not for me!). After Etsy launched, I opened up a shop selling my handmade goods and little vintage treasures. And I started blogging about all of the things I was doing.
In the summer of 2010, my kids were heading into 3rd and 6th grade, and I was toying with the idea of applying for graduate school. I had been running my shop and writing my blog for a few years and was getting antsy. But then one of my Etsy customers changed everything.
I had been selling a lot of fabric garlands in my shop and I got a request do some custom garlands for an event planner in California. A few weeks later, she sent me a link to the photos from the event, which was featured on a popular party blog. I was seriously blown away by the creativity of the party she had styled….and then all of the other parties featured on the blog as well. All of my old party supply daydreams came flooding back to me… and I decided to open another Etsy store selling a curated selection of boutique party supplies.
What I discovered immediately was that all of the random classes I had taken and experiences I had had over the past 10 years came to good use: I had learned how to style photos and take decent pictures from a class I took for writing my blog; I had taken a class in Illustrator to do some graphic design work for the children’s museum; I had learned the social graces of internet communication and social networking, and I knew how to run an online shop. I put every one of these skills to use when I opened Shop Sweet Lulu. I never would have been able to open the shop if I hadn’t been doing things I loved to do all along… Except for the real estate license; I still can’t explain that one!
We know you have filled your shop with plenty of adorable pieces for celebrating life’s special moments. What motto do you live by? What’s your favorite quote for party inspiration?
“She leaves a little sparkle wherever she goes.”
I always hope to sprinkle a little sunshine in someone’s day. I want every item that leaves our warehouse to feel like a present, and every box to feel like a party when it’s opened. We love to include little notes in our packages, or even just a piece of candy…and always some of our signature, hand-mixed crinkle shreds. It’s all about the details. Every little detail counts. And a little sparkle never hurts!
You started selling from your basement when you opened up your Etsy shop, but now you’re much, MUCH bigger! What has it been like to grow an online shop from, literally, the ground up?
I almost feel like I’ve grown up along with my business. There were so many times in the last 5 years that I just had to put on my big girl pants and get something done. I don’t have a background in business or sales; I didn’t know how to manage people or negotiate prices…I just wanted to sell pretty things! But I have challenged myself and learned so many things along the way. I think the hardest thing I’ve had to learn how to do was to delegate tasks. It’s like letting someone else take care of your baby. It’s especially hard when I have to delegate the fun stuff! You have to think about the things that only you can do and focus on those things. Other people are capable of handling the rest – otherwise you need to hire a better team.
Another way I’ve grown since I opened the shop was that we welcomed our third child into our family. I found out I was pregnant with Gray within weeks of moving into our first warehouse. My other two children are obviously quite a bit older than Gray and much more self-sufficient. It would have been really easy for me to work 24 hours a day if it wasn’t for that little nugget. As chaotic as it was to have an infant child and an infant business at the same time, he served as a great reminder to put work away at the end of the day and focus on my family. He has been such a blessing to our family in that way.
What’s your favorite party theme or color scheme? Do you have a go-to for pretty details?
I’m definitely a pink & gold girl! I collect vintage glassware and china (among about 27 other collections), and I love to mix it with products from my shop to create really pretty, but simple tablescapes. And any time you can add a handmade element to the party, it really makes it so much sweeter and more unique.
Where did you find inspiration for the direction of your shop’s aesthetic?
Shop Sweet Lulu has a really sweet, vintage-inspired aesthetic. It’s just a style that I’m drawn to. I’ve stocked the shop with only things that I love; things that I would want to use myself. Since personal taste is my only criteria, it’s really easy for me to stick to it – I either like something or I don’t!
With so many different party supply stores out there, how have you made yourself stand out as the best online shop to chose from?
There are a lot of other party supply stores out there now – and I think that keeps us on our toes. We never sit back and say, ‘our work here is done.’ We keep looking for fresh products and trying to improve in every way possible. We have a really great selection of darling, unique items at competitive prices, we ship superfast (within one business day – even for custom items), and we try to have the best customer service possible. We just keep moving forward.
We know that you initially started thinking about Shop Sweet Lulu when your youngest, Olivia, was turning one. What a process! What has been the biggest moment of your career with your shop so far?
I’ve always curated a selection of products that I loved for the shop, but my store has kind of unexpectedly become its own brand. So with that brand in mind, we’ve been working on a really huge project over the course of the last year – our own product line! I am incredibly excited about it and think they’re just about the most adorable products I’ve ever seen in my life. We’re hoping to release the collection this spring! But for now, the rest of the details are top secret.
Photography for Best Friends For Frosting by Stephanie Pana