Sophia Czarkowski has worked across a range of industries and is passionate about raising the profile of leisure-related industry and promoting creative enterprises. Currently, Sophia runs Art by Sophia from her studio in Rockhampton and is working on a new start up, Catsumi, an online boutique store for cats.
In addition to her business enterprises, Sophia is the Co-Chair for the Asia Pacific Region with World Urban Parks and a member of both its Board and Executive. Sophia has a Bachelor of Leisure Management, Graduate Diploma in Education and a Master of Leadership and has more than twelve years’ experience working in leisure and local government settings. Sophia has been working on her small business for a number of years and transitioned it into a full-time operation in 2021.
Sophia is excited to continue with her businesses and is passionate about assisting other startups with information and support.
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Table of Contents
Thank you for joining us, please introduce yourself to our readers.
Sophia Czarkowski: I’m Sophia Czarkowski, I’m the founder of Art by Sophia Yeppoon – I make and sell novelty and statement earrings and custom items like keep cups, bags, clothing and face masks from my studio in Rockhampton. In addition to this, I am currently working on a new startup, Catsumi, an online boutique store for cats. Outside of my business enterprises, I am the Co-Chair for the Asia Pacific Region with World Urban Parks and a member of both their Board and Executive.
What is the most interesting thing that has happened to you at your company since you started working there?
Sophia Czarkowski: In July 2021, not long after transitioning my business from a part time gig to a full time operation, I was featured on Sunrise’s Plugapalooza section. It was terrifying yet exciting and was the first time I had spoken on national television. I had the opportunity to promote my small business and share a little bit about what I do. The opportunity helped me build my social media following and is to date probably one of my highlights and it really challenged me and built my confidence.
No one can achieve success without some help. Who helped you become successful? Can you share a story about that person?
Sophia Czarkowski: I am fortunate to have been supported by so many amazing, resilient and determined people and through the power of social media I have found a community of amazing people who are willing to share advice and support me. To choose just one person, from a young age, I watched my brother, Justin, work through an apprenticeship and build an electrical business from the ground up. Starting as a sole operator, he now runs Just-In Time Electrical a successful electrical business in Brisbane that employs several electricians, an apprentice and administration officer.
Through watching Justin, I saw how hard work, resilience, adaptability and passion shaped his business and enabled it to grow and become responsive to floods, economic downturns and more recently pandemics. Justin once told me that I should be the hardest working person in the room, and that is something I took to heart and have made a personal value.
When I started building my business, Justin was there to provide advice, recommend podcasts, suggest solutions and to remind me not to undervalue myself. Now I run my business full time, Justin continues to be there and to help me grow as a business owner and a person. He continues to provide advice, listen to me when it’s tough and to share stories from his business that I can learn from. He continues to be an amazing role model which drives me to be the best version of me.
Can you tell our readers how your company is different in your industry? Give us examples to illustrate those differences.
Sophia Czarkowski: I currently offer corporate merchandise with no or low minimum order quantities, this means small businesses can access branded collateral without having to purchase hundreds of an item, they can, in most circumstances, order one of an item. This also extends to the community who can now order full colour custom printed earrings (e.g. photos, quotes, images) and these have been popular for baby gender reveals and medical workers.
I have a large range of novelty earrings including a range dedicated to teachers and another for medical workers with more occupation based earrings coming soon. This range has been really popular with professionals as a way of engaging with students or clients through fun and quirky earrings, like don’t make me use my teacher voice; without coffee I miss every vein; get your cray on and a range of mismatched studs including a unicorn and rainbow and a bunny and carrot set.
Adapt or die is a necessity when navigating challenging times. Tell us how your industry is changing since the pandemic started.
Sophia Czarkowski: I started Art by Sophia in 2016 and since that time it has morphed into what it is today through the need to adapt – changing times, pandemic, responding to lower cost homewares and artworks from brand name stores reducing artwork sales and my own desire to grow and improve what I do. In 2020 and 2021, there was an influx of homemade and custom businesses. During this time, there were also issues with global shipping and a drive to return to products made/manufactured in Australia.
In response to both, I re-evaluated my business and made the decision to introduce a few key focuses into my business. The first is occupation based ranges, this was launched with a suite of earrings for educators and another for medical professionals (nurses, doctors, mental health etcetera) and followed by a suite of tote bags for teachers. The next focus was to cater for small business and corporate orders, I invested in a genuine sublimation printer and inks and I launched a corporate range for small businesses which has no or low minimum order quantities. This means small business can order one branded mug or tumbler or two masks without being locked in to a minimum order of 50 or 100. Whilst the blanks are, generally, made overseas the printing is done in Australia and where possible I support other small businesses.
One of the challenges over the last two years has been changing my business presence for customers, I have both an online store and attend local markets. As lock downs impacted the country the majority of my business was online and as lockdowns lifted online orders dropped significantly and I relied more on local markets. This shift impacts on all areas of the business including advertising, stock levels and time. I learnt lessons along the way and began to tweak my business plan to accommodate the two situations. As lock downs lifted I reduced online advertising and started having pop up shops at a local shopping centre. During lock downs people were ordering far more earrings and so I increased my stock levels, but at a market people tend to only buy 1-2 pairs at a time so turnover reduces. These are all things I learnt along the way and have helped me to build resilience and adaptability into my business and business plans.
Many readers wonder what are the biggest challenges you had to overcome in 2021 to remain successful?
Sophia Czarkowski: 2021 presented a range of challenges, for me there were some standouts the first affected nearly everyone and it was the uncertainty. We experienced decisions being made from a federal and state point of view which affected what we could and couldn’t do, but we also experienced lock downs or isolation based, inadvertently, on our own actions. We visited a shop at a certain time when someone who had Covid-19 was there and ended up in isolation. This meant that things could change in a heart beat and as a business owner solely reliant on my business for income it elevated the uncertainty. If I have Covid-19 or am a close contact, how will I get orders to customers without a local mail pick up service? If I can’t attend markets how will that impact on my income.
The second challenge I faced was actually related to the housing (specifically rental) crisis, the house I was living in sold and I had to find a new rental. This added an extra layer of stress as there were a few months where, despite steady employment, I was genuinely concerned I would end up homeless.
The third challenge was the global shipping delays caused by Covid-19. The shipping challenges meant that many items were out of stock across Australia and some importation had to occur direct from factories. As more and more flights were cancelled shipping prices soared. There were months when the tumblers I customise, which is a primary source of income for my business, were completely sold out. Customers were wanting orders filled, but in some cases I had to turn them down.
How did you overcome these obstacles? What helped you the most during these difficult times?
Sophia Czarkowski: Resilience was key to overcoming these challenges, with the uncertainty it was looking at what I could and couldn’t control and then focussing on what I could control. Things like a business continuity plan, communications pre-written in the event of isolation occurring, staying connected with other small business owners and joining small business owner groups on social media. A lot of us were in the same boat and there was a lot of support in these groups.
I managed to secure a house, but this required a relocation from Yeppoon, my home of 14 years, to Rockhampton, whilst this was not ideal it has allowed me to be closer to services and other businesses. Whilst I miss the ocean views, I am grateful to have secured a house to live in.
With respect to shipping challenges, I did need to source some products directly from factories as they couldn’t be sourced in Australia. Presently the cost of shipping items from China has sky rocketed and, for me, the shipping cost is sometimes double the product cost. This has resulted in price rises for my products or absorbing increasing costs and reducing profit margins. Whilst the latter isn’t ideal, it is sometimes required to continue selling products affordably. I continue to try and source products in Australia and support Australian businesses wherever possible.
Share some lessons you learned while adapting your business practices during the past couple of years.
Sophia Czarkowski: I have spoken a lot about resilience and adaptability and both are important and I’ve learnt some lessons around both, but I want to focus on some other lessons.
Contingency plans are really important, what will happen to the business and customers if it’s temporarily out of action. This is really important in maintaining trust with customers especially if the business is out of action for a short term. If you have good and clear communication around this then customers will, generally, be more understanding.
As the world moved online and lockdowns occurred, I relied more on marketing and in turn paid advertising to promote my business, this becomes costly and in the current competitive market it’s not always successful. I now have a greater focus on publicity, an holistic approach to marketing and I taught myself about SEOs so I could introduce these into my website. This step made me truly reflect on who my ideal customer is and tailor keywords to suit.
What advice did you wish you had received before the pandemic that you’d like to share now with aspiring entrepreneurs?
Sophia Czarkowski: Don’t devalue yourself, I started my hobby business as an entry level artist and creator and, like so many, I didn’t value my work the way I should have. As my business has grown and become my sole focus I have learnt some hard lessons about valuing myself and my work. When I work with new small business owners one of the first conversations we have is about valuing yourself and your work. Making sure that you aren’t underselling yourself.
All great companies are spearheaded by great leaders, but tell us how your team supported your decisions? Is there a particular example that stands out the most?
Sophia Czarkowski: I don’t have a team of employees that work alongside me, however, there is a team of amazing people who support me behind the scenes. My parents are the most supportive people, every crazy idea I’ve had they have supported and believed in me.
They are my sounding boards and and will travel from Brisbane to Rockhampton to help me at large markets, will peel tape off thousands of acrylic earring pieces and provide honest advise on proposed stock ranges or business direction. I also have an amazing friend and former work colleague, Christie, she has been there every step of the way in the hardest moments she’s stood with me and told me it will be okay and she’s celebrated the wins with me
What do you plan on tackling during 2022? Share your goals and battles you expect to face.
Sophia Czarkowski: I am currently in the midst of setting up a second business, Catsumi, an online boutique store for cats. This is not the end for Art by Sophia it will continue, Catsumi is more like a second job, worked afterhours but loved just as much. I am using everything I’ve learnt from running Art by Sophia, taking courses and working with other small businesses to set Catsumi up from the start, and I’m so excited to see where it will go.
Although the addition of a second business probably doesn’t sound like I’m heading this way but I am focusing on creating a better work life balance and have been trying new things and learning new skills. I am also making sure I take time to catch up with friends and family something I have not down well over the last 18 months.
I will continue to grow Art by Sophia and adapt to changing times and I look forward to continuing to work with corporate customers to fill orders and create new product ranges.
I am looking to attend courses and join networks to help me build my small business and learn more about running a business.
Thank you so much for your time but before we finish things off, I do have one more question for you. When was the last time you did something for the first time and what was it?
Sophia Czarkowski: As I said earlier I’m trying to focus on my work life balance and I’ve done a few new things recently as part of that. In February I took pottery classes and learnt how to make a mug and a cheese platter and I recently started Latin dance classes. Not only are these great for relaxing and having fun it allows me to support other small businesses in the Region.
Jerome Knyszewski, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Sophia Czarkowski for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Sophia Czarkowski or her company, you can do it through her – Linkedin Page
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