SAINT JOHN- Growing up, Cynthia LeBreton was always drawing.
“I always sketched, I always painted,” she says. “As soon as I could hold a crayon I was drawing.”
She didn’t know it back then, but her love of drawing would lead her to start her own business, and becoming a leader on one of the most popular online commerce platforms for artists: Etsy.
LeBreton is the owner of Heaps Handworks, a company that screen-prints clothing and housewares by hand. All designed, sketched and printed at a home studio, Heaps products are what LeBreton describes as “whimsical designs.” Some of her popular pieces include a giraffe with reading glasses and an octopus with ballet slippers. There’s also a whale holding an umbrella, and a tree holding a yoga pose.
LeBreton gets her inspiration from nature, from her energetic little dog to the animals she sees around her home in the Kennebecasis Valley.
“You get to learn that animals have personality. Nature has personality,” she says. “I’ve tried to capture some different things that might be the personality of an animal.”
The business started about seven years back when she first started screen printing at home. Once she got the hang of it, she did what many artisans did – open an Etsy shop. But she didn’t just plan on selling a few items, she wanted to go big. With the help of her husband, Mark, she did just that.
“We actually have a very large Etsy shop. I think we’ve got over 650 listings and we’ve actually whittled that down from over 1,000 listings,” says LeBreton.
But it’s not just a matter of numbers of listings. The couple treats the shop like a full-fledged business. Mark, who is a marketing professional, puts in lots of work to set up effective paid advertising, optimizing SEO, social media and making sure the online shop had high-quality photos. Since the shop first launched, Heaps Handworks has become a full-time gig for both of them.
“I left my job first then he was able to leave his job and we were able to do it full time. I had the artisan side to it, and he loves marketing. We started on Etsy first just to build that side of it,” says LeBreton. “It’s a lot of work to build an Etsy account and a website and get traffic to the website. There’s lots of adds and SEO and so on to try to get yourself to show up online.”
Their strong focus on marketing, alongside creating a large volume and variety of products, has pushed Heaps Handworks to become one of the biggest Esty shops in the world.
“It was lots of work and now we are in the top 1 per cent by sales volume in the world,” says LeBreton.
Most of their online orders have come from the United States and Canda, particularly the west coast. They have shipped to Dubai, Russia, England, Portugal and Ireland.
“We have one customer in Ireland that buys a t-shirt from us every six weeks,” she says.
Heaps Handworks can also be seen at local markets around Greater Saint John. They set up a permanent stall in the Saint John City Market back in April, a prime location for both locals and tourists alike. Up until this year, more of HEAPS sales were primarily online. Now, it’s about 50/50.
“One interesting about being [in the City Market], there’s been lots of cruise ship traffic through. One lady from New York when she was coming through, she came in and she looked twice and said, ‘I follow you on Instagram and I’ve bought from your Etsy shop,’ says LeBreton.
“It’s been a good pairing because people have actually seen us before when they are coming to visit the city. The flip side of it is, people who have met me for the first time here and bought a couple of tea towels, they go home and they buy from the Etsy shop.”
Looking to the future LeBreton says the goal is to keep Heaps Handworks a two-person team.
“In growing the business, we offered lots of custom options, so we’re starting to streamline to see what are the options people are choosing the most often so we can dial back a little bit and create more volume of products. Not mass producing or anything like that, but being able to do a little more improvements so that will gain us some efficiency in it,” she says.
“At this point, we’re hoping to just keep it in-house and keep it just the two of us and branch out that way, as well as continue with more designs, because online and locally, we’ve got repeat customers, that every time we come out with a new design, they are like ‘oh, got to have that!’ Always having that fresh product is beneficial.”
Though the online Etsy shop played a significant role in growing the business, the support for the local community has played just as big a role in Heaps Handworks’ success.
“We’re just really thrilled with the response from the local community. People have just been incredibly supportive. We have so many repeat customers and some of them have actually become friends as a result of the business,” says LeBreton. “They have given us ideas and we’ve incorporated some of those ideas into our designs and started a whole new design theme based on some of those inspirations from them, so we’ve just been really appreciative.”