“I enjoy the freedom of being able to spend more time with my family nine months a year,” says Cathrine Novotny, co-founder of Formina, a webshop that is insanely busy during the final months of the year, and very quiet in the spring and summer.
Cathrine and her husband Jan are totally dedicated to selling gingerbread cookie cutters, a very niche product category that is extremely popular for a very short window of the year – just like Christmas trees, back-to-school materials and Halloween costumes.
The crunchy, golden biscuits are served on tens of thousands of tables in European countries in the weeks leading up to Christmas, they are pretty much forgotten about the rest of the year (which is strange, because they are very tasty and addictive). Called “Pfefferkuchen” in Germany, “pain d’épices” in France, “pepparkakor” in Sweden, and “piparkakut” in Finland, these thin cookies are traditionally baked in quite standard shapes: a circle, a star, a heart, a crescent moon, or maybe an old man or woman.
However, the kinds of shapes you’ll find in Cathrine and Jan’s webstore are quite different: They also sell penguins, sports equipment, more than ten breeds of dog, many car models, music instruments, and even the Eiffel tower. Yes, that’s what a seasonal business can look like in practice. Their entire online business is built around the idea that people love to add some fun to their seasonal baking. “First we tried to sell our cookie cutters to kindergartens. Once we realised that the teachers were ordering them privately, to use in their own homes, we changed strategy. We then started to market these cutters to individuals,” says Cathrine.
The marketing benefit of the seasonal business
Choosing a niche that is in high demand for a very short time is a great idea from a marketing perspective.
“The season for baking gingerbread cookies has an intrinsic deadline, and it helps our marketing a lot. When we advertise in November people pay attention and immediately realise they need to order, that they can’t wait. We tried promoting our cutters in the spring as well, because our cutters can be used for any kind of cookies really, not just gingerbread cookies. But that didn’t work at all. I don’t know the numbers, but the marketing before Christmas has been at least 50 times more effective, maybe even 100.”
Other benefits of a seasonal business
Besides having a seasonal tailwind supporting your sales, Cathrine mentions a few other benefits of her seasonal business.“I find it very effective in general. When you know that you just have a certain number of weeks to bring in the sales, you don’t waste any time, and you prioritise what matters.” With the short sales window also comes easy budgeting.
“Whatever we make during that period, that’s basically what we have at our disposal for the rest of the year. We don’t need to guess how much money we can spend. Once the season is over, we know, and that also means being disciplined with money.”
The greatest benefit of all is, of course, the freedom. “For most of the year, we can choose to work for 10 minutes or six hours a day on our business. I wouldn’t say we sign out completely, because as all business owners know, business is with you wherever you are, and we do check our e-mail ourselves. But we don’t distinguish between ‘Work time’ and ‘Leisure time’ – it’s all just ‘time’ for us – and it’s amazing to have the freedom to decide how to spend it.”
The cons of the seasonal business
The obvious one: When you are busy, you are really busy and don’t have time for anything else.
“We have been totally exhausted some Decembers. There has been plenty of nighttime work as well, and we have never had any formal sick days. Even days when you are suffering from fever you bite the bullet and do what you can. It’s changed for the better the last few years. Now we have found a level that works for us and we have defined our different roles and routines. Before that, we often discovered that we were doing work which the other person had already done, things like that.”
Staffing can also be difficult with a seasonal business. “That’s one of the big challenges for us. Getting the right people to help you is so important, but the curse of a seasonal business is that you can’t offer anything more than just two months. Every autumn we ask ourselves, ‘Who is going to work for us this year?’, and we have become better at selecting the right people. This year we had very, very good staff, which made everything run much more smooothly. We discovered it’s much better to have staff who are accurate rather than enthusiastic.”
How their seasonal business idea was born
At first they didn’t know what to sell in their business, they just fancied the freedom that this kind of business would give them.
“It was my husband who suggested it, and I was willing to try, given that the business wouldn’t take over our lives completely. I had seen so many examples of people who don’t have a life anymore, just a business,” says Cathrine.
She was a school teacher at the time, and Jan was a carpenter and painter. This was in 2005. At a market, while travelling in Europe, she happened to see someone selling gingerbread cookie cutters. “That would sell online,” she convinced her husband.
After testing the demand offline first – by selling at local marketplaces – they set up a very simple webshop, and soon they had orders coming in. “Order management was very messy in the beginning. I remember I got orders through the mail, and needed to enter numbers into an Excel document… things like that. It was very manual. We also got a very simple webshop created just for us. It was great as long as everything was functioning, but when there was a tech glitch it was a catastrophe.”
In 2009 they upgraded to a more sophisticated solution (the e-commerce platform from Wikinggruppen, and soon they didn’t need to continue their day jobs to cover their living expenses.
“People still don’t believe us when we tell them we can actually make a living selling gingerbread cutters, and my mother-in-law keeps asking ‘When is this bubble going to burst?’. She still believes that the market will soon be saturated.”
So far, there are no signs of market saturation. However, they work creatively to bring in additional income based on their position in the marketplace. “For example, we are expanding our network of resellers, and making special cutter designs for organisations – logotypes, shapes of certain buildings and so on – often with laser engraving added as well. When we started, we couldn’t have seen that coming. These requests come right after summer, in September, so they prolong the busy season. And when it’s not the high season we design new motifs, improve SEO ranking, and do everything else that comes with running a business, so we are never completely off, even if the prime time for our webshop is only 2-3 months a year.”
Their 3 tips
For starting a seasonal online business
1. Start small to test things out
“Our approach from the very beginning was to start slow, and see what sticks. We gave the business time to grow slowly, and kept our jobs at first so that we wouldn’t feel any financial pressure. That’s a very good strategy if you are not the kind of person who has the drive, energy and resources to do whatever it takes to go from 0 to 100 in a short time.”
2. Be willing to change your original idea
“From the very beginning our idea was to sell 5 different sets, each including 5 gingerbread cookie cutters, to kindergartens and schools. We put out ads in magazines for that kind of market but soon discovered that the teachers who ordered were doing so for personal use. Then we changed our approach.”
3. Put effort into hiring your seasonal staff
“It costs so much energy and time to hire people who aren’t the right fit for the job. In the beginning we hired just based on personal chemistry. We found out the hard way that having good work ethics and a personality fit for the job are even more important than enthusiasm and likeability.”