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Business Observer Friday, Aug. 2, 2019 2 months ago

Following career in political fundraising, entrepreneur enters bright world of lampshades

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Linda Daniel has built up a clientele of homeowners, interior designers, home stagers and real estate agents for her custom lampshades.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

Life’s too short for white lampshades. That’s Linda Daniel’s motto. And with her custom lampshade business, she’s setting out to convince the world of that motto, too.

After working in political fundraising in Washington, D.C., for 25 years, Daniel was burned out and decided it was time for something different. “I knew I wanted to do something creative,” she says. Since she’d always loved them, she decided to pursue creativity in the form of lampshades.

To learn the craft of making lampshades, she spent a couple days with Judy Lake of Lake’s Lampshades. “When I started doing it, my hands ached,” Daniel says. “I had to do exercises to get the ache out.”

It took a while, she says, to really learn how to do it. She’s been perfecting her craft since she started in 2012, and she’s built a growing business around it — elle daniel.

“Raising money is about promoting someone else. Running your own business is about promoting yourself and your work.” — Linda Daniel, president and founder, elle daniel

At first, Daniel primarily sold to family and friends. Now she’s built up a clientele of homeowners, interior designers, home stagers and real estate agents who see her colorful, custom lampshades as a unique home accessory. Daniel says, “With one lampshade, you can brighten up a whole room.”

For Daniel, who has self-funded her venture, the road ahead includes continuing to gain traction in the Sarasota area and beefing up marketing efforts to win new clients for her one-of-a-kind creations.

Unlike many manufacturing processes that hinge on making thousands of exact replicas, Daniel is not hemmed in by having to do the same thing more than once or use specific materials for her lampshades. She made one with wallpaper from her D.C. kitchen, plus others from an old dress, a vintage tablecloth and a skirt she bought at Goodwill. “I like experimenting with new stuff,” she says. “I like the creative process. When I have too many parameters, I get stifled.”

Since the business is 90% custom lampshades, a lot of hands-on time with customers is involved. They bring fabric to her or visit her studio to select fabric from her collection for a lampshade.

While initially she did more work remotely for family and friends, now most of her sales volume comes from customers in Sarasota. Participating in more events locally has helped people find out about elle daniel, she says.

Her lampshades are also sold in boutiques, through her website and on the online platform Etsy. She doesn’t look to Etsy for sales, though. Non-online venues account for the majority of her orders.

One area of growth has been the nightlights she sells — smaller-scale creations Daniel says make great gifts. Over time, she’s streamlined the process she uses to make the nightlights, using one-panel lampshades as opposed to several panels and saving herself time and effort. The nightlights carry a lower price tag ($40) than her other lampshades and present customers an easier point for entry for her products. Her other shades range from $60 to $500, depending on the size, number of panels, fabric and labor involved. The average price is $175 to $225.

To gain more clients, Daniel posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. “I think social media has been good for me,” she says. “It keeps you relevant, keeps a rhythm and keeps the buzz going.” For Daniel, managing elle daniel’s social media presence is another business task she doesn’t farm out. “I like to do it myself,” she says. “I know my brand better than anybody else.”

It’s one marketing area she’s pushed, but Daniel says she had a business coach who told her she needed to focus more on marketing. It’s her weak spot, she says, and she’s trying to do more. She earned some big marketing wins in the form of national media exposure in Country Living magazine, the book “Prints Charming” by Madcap Cottage and a recent issue of Cottages & Bungalows magazine. 

While her focus is on building up elle daniel and not political fundraising anymore, Daniel says there are some things that translate between the two worlds. Among the similarities? In both, she says it’s important to, “Keep your overhead as low as you possibly can and your profit high.”

From her political fundraising experience, she’s also held fast to another essential business concept: “The customer is always right. That’s the No. 1 thing.” That can even mean redoing a product to make sure a customer is happy.

There are other similarities, too. In both, networking is key and so are lists. “You live and die by lists in fundraising,” she says. “Someone who has bought shades before will probably buy again or refer.”

While some of her previous work has played into elle daniel, there is one big difference between political fundraising and owning a lampshade company. “Raising money is about promoting someone else,” Daniel says. “Running your own business is about promoting yourself and your work. I could talk about someone else until I was blue in the face. It’s harder to talk about myself.”

Read all of the Business Observer's Made on the Gulf Coast articles: 

National manufacturers highlight industry anxiety

At fire truck plant, attention to detail reigns — right down to shiny red paint

Cabinetmaker, staying nimble, builds solid business

Pinball wizard targets industry revival

Danish draft beer equipment maker drinks up growth

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