10 years in business is a significant achievement of which I am incredibly proud. Building and sustaining a thriving business yourself is challenging but extremely rewarding. Let's look over the past decade at where my doll-making journey started, the accomplishments I've achieved and where I am right now, in my 10th anniversary year!
I still remember when I decided to start Upper Dhali®. I was in the finance industry – numbers, financial reporting and analysis were my jam – and I dreamed of moving into a financial analysis and auditing role.
That was until my Nana passed away in May 2012. The day my world shattered around me but commenced something unexpectedly precious.
The grief, as I have openly talked about over the years, was intense, and I no longer found joy in my work. I did, however, find happiness, a peaceful mind and emotional healing when I created.
I made dolls full-time on a whim – and I'm not even kidding when I say that it was a spur-of-the-moment decision without any planning (I would not usually recommend it!). Without even knowing how to thread a sewing machine! I figured that the worst thing that could happen with this decision is that I'd have a vast collection of handmade dolls adorning my walls – that wouldn't be so bad, would it?
I made my first cotton fabric doll from a Dolls & Daydreams pattern (Miss Tippy Toes). The very first doll was machine sewn. My skills weren't excellent, but I seemed to be doing well; until I turned the body out to start stuffing. To my dismay, I found that I had sewn the arms wrong, and they were on the inside of the doll! I told you guys I couldn't read a pattern!
I researched and practised doll-making until I couldn't explore anymore. I was obsessed. The hours spent sewing, making mistakes, unpicking, and then starting again – I'd hate to imagine how much time I spent doing that! That's how I learned, though, and from where I sit now, that time was the most significant investment in my future e-commerce self.
Collective Avenue was a pop-up shop here in Brisbane, Queensland. I saw a post on Facebook in November 2012 announcing they were opening a shopfront close by and wanted applications from handmade businesses to sell products in their store. That was the first "big break" I had – I applied, I was accepted, stocked the shop with products, and they SOLD. Knowing that people were buying my handmade dolls blew my mind and boosted my confidence!
Not long after, I met the gorgeous Jen from Bowerbird – another beautiful Brisbane based boutique stocked with lovely handmade products. Again, I applied to trade. Again, I was accepted. Again, I sold my dolls. The reassurance that people admired my dolls and loved them felt terrific, and I was starting to believe that my handmade dolls had a place in the world.
It was around this time that I started my first website. Not the most optimised nor the loveliest, but it was a place for people to buy other than Facebook. I made the dolls, and people came to buy them. I often think of it as my own "Field of Dreams" movie: "build it, and they will come".
The next few years were busy creating and building my little handmade doll empire. I desperately wanted to make all the dolls for all the people. After a hectic few years of only spending time creating for my customers and not enjoying my family or hobbies, I realised that businesses, like people, need boundaries, and I developed a unique and previously unheard-of product niche:
Opportunities came to grace the homes of some beautiful Australian celebrities like Sophie Guidolin, Sara McGrath, Chezzi Denyer & Mel Watts to name but a few; whilst collaborating with other talented Australian small businesses, including the world-renowned Lacey Lane children's clothing label, now known as The Lane & Co. Upper Dhali® handmade dolls have also made it overseas into famous international actresses' and musicians' homes (as these were personal purchases, I have chosen to remain confidential). Not bad, given that I needed to learn how to sew initially!
On top of learning how to use a sewing machine (haha!), some of my other most memorable business achievements include formally registering business trademarks; building and designing my websites; registering for GST; raising thousands of dollars for multiple Australian charities; donating dolls to children with the international Make a Wish foundation and also to other children in need; being featured in print magazines; winning prestigious product awards; learning copyright law; winning government business grants; mentoring other small business owners. The list goes on. I've achieved so much more than I ever imagined than just making beautiful handmade dolls.
With the help of my beautiful first business coach, she taught me the tools I needed to grow as a person, a creative, and a business owner. As a result, not only did my business start to thrive, but I did, too, as a person.
I love my work, especially building client relationships. Still, if I'm candid, I've wanted to throw it in a few times. If you've followed me for a while, you might have even known this subconsciously. I'm an energy-based creative, and the unexpected health issues I've faced over the last few years have affected that energy. And let's be frank; it is just so hard doing all the things some days.
Sometimes I can't bring myself to look at the embroidery that needs doing; other days, the thought of being present on emails and social media puts on anxious, so I hide. Before I know it, a week has passed, and I've got nothing to show. I've learnt to sit with these feelings and thoughts and physically ground myself until I receive the answer I need (that's why I rarely wear shoes). Significant changes and shifts happen when you experience energetically challenging times.
However, one reason I keep creating and growing always remains true – you, my customer ♥ Creating from the heart for customers who want something meaningful. It has always been important to me that my dolls would be loved and cherished because of their sentimental value and not end up in a marketplace as second-hand.
And so here we are, in the official Upper Dhali® 10th anniversary year! I've self-built this successful, award-winning and internationally revered handmade doll empire.
Some days I can't believe I've made it this far; other days, starting my business feels like yesterday, and I still have so much to learn. Either way, it's mine. Through my hard work and determination to do things differently from the mainstream, I'm proud to be the pioneer brand of beautiful heirloom quality sentimental keepsake dolls.
Minty Magazine wasn't wrong when they described Upper Dhali® as "the new generation of keepsake dolls" all those years ago!
How long have you been following along with my journey of making handmade dolls? Let me know below in the comments, I'd really love to hear from you!